Tuesday, February 26, 2008

War of the Words

We were away the other day and so didn't get to watch the war launched Sunday by the nation of Pakistan against the web site of YouTube. The war lasted two hours, far shorter than an Island Authority board meeting on Pensacola Beach.

If you're into such things as stealth jets zipping through the skies, exploding bombs, gut-wrenching screams of agony from someone who looks like the child of your enemy, and all the other thrills that war offers to lizard brains, you will be disappointed to learn that this war was silently conducted by software and digital coding, and no one died.

News.com has the gritty technical details. Here's a summary:
Network providers -- called autonomous systems, or ASs -- broadcast the ranges of IP addresses to which they'll provide access. One of the functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is managing the master list of AS numbers, which it does by allocating large blocks of 1,000 or so at a time to regional address registries.
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If the address information provided by AS is reliable, all is well. But if an AS makes a false broadcast, because of a configuration mistake or for malicious reasons, all hell can break loose.

This is what happened with YouTube, which Pakistan's government ordered blocked because of offensive material, apparently a video depicting cartoons about Muhammad that had been posted in a Danish newspaper. Some reports have said the video featured several minutes of a film made by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, an outspoken critic of Islam.

A spokesman for the Pakistani embassy said on Monday that the order to block access to YouTube came from the highest levels of the government. It would have been passed along to Pakistan's Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and then to Pakistan's telecom authority, the spokesman said, which in turn would have issued the formal order to the Internet providers.

Pakistan Telecom responded by broadcasting the false claim that it was the correct route for 256 addresses in YouTube's network space. Because that was a more specific destination than the true broadcast from YouTube saying it was home to 1,024 computers, within a few minutes traffic started flowing to the wrong place.
More interestingly, CNN explores the strategic interests at stake. It turns out that this isn't the first time a nation-state has begun a war against YouTube. At one or another time a number of other countries have attacked the same video site:
The countries acted after concluding that YouTube videos were subversive (China), immoral (Iran), embarrassing to well-known figures (Brazil) or critical of a country's king (Thailand), the group said.

Governments also have sought to regulate user-supplied Internet content to stymie allegations that they abuse human rights, the group said
Furthermore, videos aren't the only web content under attack by governments, according to the BBC. A new study by the Open Net Initiative concludes, "The level of state-led censorship of the net is growing around the world... ." At least 25 of 41 countries surveyed "showed evidence of content filtering" or government controlled censorship of web sites including the Internet telephone service known as Skype and Google Maps.

Don't imagine for a moment the U.S. Government isn't starting its own "wars of choice" against Internet sites it doesn't like, too. The White House has tried for years to forbid web site photos of the flag-draped coffins of our own soldiers coming home. Last year the Pentagon prohibited our troops overseas from accessing MySpace.com.

Even a U.S. court got into the swing last week by shutting down the U.S. hosted "whistle-blower" web site called Wikileaks. To see the Wkileaks site these days, embarrassingly enough for a nation that supposedly reveres the Constitution of our Founding Fathers, you have to navigate to an overseas mirror site.

As the Open Net Initiative points out, technically speaking the Wikileak censorship wasn't sought by the government but by "a bank registered in the Cayman islands." However --
The whole event seems to encapsulate the constant criticism of governance in the United States: that the government has been captured by corporate interests, and that the world-leading rule of law and technocratic mechanisms in place can be hijacked to serve as tools for narrow, wealthy interests.
It's not really web sites like YouTube or Google Maps or even Wikileaks that U.S. corporate interests and dictatorial governments elsewhere want to bring to an end. It's the Age of Enlightenment, and in particular those once-upon-a-time American, quaint notions of freedom of expression and thought.

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