A few days ago, the folks at Global Voices got email from a friend of ours who was working at the National Science Foundation. He was trying to read an article that Jacob Applebaum had posted to Global Voices Advocacy, reacting to a recent report by Freedom House evaluating various tools useful for circumventing internet censorship. When he attempted to follow the link to our site, the web filtering software used by the National Science Foundation blocked the webpage, returning him the message, “Important Notice – National Science Foundation has blocked access to this site. (policy_denied)”. The message went on to offer an email address where a user could report an erroneous blockage and request a review.
So Ivan Sigal, our executive director, wrote a note to the email address asking why our site was blocked to researchers at the National Science Foundation. We got the response back today, six days later. The response tells us that the blockage is not in error. Blue Coat, who manage web filtering for the NSF, explained that while our site is primarily classified as “political/activism”, there’s still a problem: “The website has verbiage indicating how to avoid proxy filtering, which clearly violates our security policy and therefore will remain blocked.”
That’s certainly true – one of the main functions of Global Voices Advocacy is to provide information to people in repressive nations so they can seek and publish information freely online. And it’s certainly possible that you could learn enough from Global Voices Advocacy that you could download circumvention software (not at the NSF, one presumes, but remotely), load it onto a USB key and circumvent Blue Coat’s software. One popular package you might try is Tor, funded in part by the US government, which recognizes its utility in promoting “internet freedom” for political dissidents.
In other words, the National Science Foundation is spending taxpayer money to (ineffectively) prevent scientists from learning about a debate about “internet freedom” tools the US State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors are spending taxpayer money to support and promote, again using taxpayer money.
Is there a Federal irony department where I can lodge a complaint?
I see Blue Coat’s logic, I suppose – it’s hard to maintain a filtering system if users are able to obtain tools that can circumvent those filters. (Again, I feel pretty confident that people smart enough to work at the National Science Foundation can find ways to defeat filters using software they downloaded at home.) But blocking sites for discussing filtering systems (we’re not offering downloadable software at Global Voices Advocacy) raises an interesting dilemma – can anyone at the NSF study internet filtering and circumvention if their internal IT systems have a policy on blocking access to such information? (It also raises the question of why Blue Coat doesn’t just block the page they find troubling, rather than blocking all sorts of content on our site about imprisoned activists and censorship in other nations…)
My friend Sami ben Gharbia – coincidently, the director of Global Voices Advocacy – wrote a ferocious (and very compelling) critique of the US government’s Internet Freedom agenda, suggesting that the policy has an inconsistent focus, overfocusing on countries the US sees as a threat and underfocusing on “friendly” dictatorships. He worried that this apparent inconsistency would lead to skepticism that the US really wants a free and open internet everywhere.
That skepticism is evidently warranted. I’m pretty surprised to learn that the scientists at NSF are working in a filtered internet environment, and that the filtering is so aggressive that discussion of internet filtering and circumvention can’t be discussed. One wonders whether the State Department might consider offering some trainings for the National Science Foundation so that employees there can learn side by side with Chinese dissidents how to overcome filtering and learn about State Department sponsored research on internet filtering. Maybe we can sneak into the building with Tor on USB keys and clandestinely smuggle them to oppressed US scientists.
If you work on a US government computer, I’d love to know whether you can reach Global Voices Advocacy. If you can’t, I’d really appreciate it if you’d let me know in the comments, with an error message, if possible. I promise not to publish email or IP addresses, but if you’re really worried about protecting your privacy, I do recommend using Tor. :-)