Holes in the firewall

Mar 27 2014, 15:22 IST
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SummaryWhat burning books was to the Gutenberg age, blocking sites is to the internet age.

What burning books was to the Gutenberg age, blocking sites is to the internet age. These acts are performed for the same reasons, and they have the same effect—a sudden interest in the book or site under attack. Censorship defeats its stated purpose and popularises what it set out to contain.

When Penguin Random House withdrew and pulped the India edition of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An

Alternative History, Delhi’s booksellers anticipated huge demands for the classics scholar’s other books. They responded by displaying Doniger’s books very prominently in show windows. Apparently, there was also a spike in e-book downloads. Never mind the figures, for the first time in a life devoted to India in general and the study of Hindu culture in particular, Doniger emerged from the restricted world of the seminar room and the lecture hall. Her name is now widely known and generates public curiosity about her works. The attempt at censorship was self-defeating.

Now, Istanbul is doing battle with Twitter, perhaps out of some misguided fear of a Turkish Spring, after allegations of corruption were discussed on social media. First, a DNS page redirect took users away from the Twitter home page, a silly trick from the Nineties that would cause today’s users nothing more than one double take, maybe followed by a laugh. DNS redirection is trivial to bypass, by going to Twitter’s actual IP address rather than Twitter.com. One wonders why governments even contemplate such measures any more.

When the government actually blocked Twitter.com, makers of proxying and anonymising software were immediate beneficiaries. Within 24 hours after the ban, the Turkish user base of Hospot Shield spiked, with 330 times more downloads than the average rate. This is software for phones to create virtual private networks that evade censorship firewalls. The anonymising software Tor was also used. Earlier restricted to geekdom, it has been popularised by Edward Snowden’s press conferences. His laptop, which is very visible in media, bears the Vidalia onion logo of Tor.

Post-ban, social media managers have reported a rise in Twitter traffic in Turkey. What worked for Gutenberg continues to work for the internet. In fact, it works even better. The age of print was hieratic, with elites in control of the press, and mainly the consumers of its products too. The printing press has been democratic only for a century and even then, as the Doniger case shows it remains trivially easy to

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