Saturday, March 14, 2015

RSF move to Amazon Web Services runs risk to business

It was reported this week that Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontiers, had facilitated the unblocking of several banned websites in countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia by setting up mirror websites on Amazon's cloud web service.

However, the exercise, while highlighting an important issue concerning censorship may prove futile and damage legitimate businesses who work out of China.

Calculated risk 

The use of Amazon Web Services calls China's bluff under the pretext that the authorities will be discouraged from trying to block these new links at their source for fear of disrupting traffic to other websites.

"The countries concerned could block these services but almost certainly will not," explained a Reporters Without Borders spokesperson. "Blocking Amazon, Microsoft or any major cloud computing service provider would cripple the thousands of tech companies that use them every day."

"The economic and political cost of blocking the mirror sites would therefore be too high."

Amazon Web Services is encrypted, and so to block sites using it the Chinese government would need to block the entire AWS domain, a step that some believe it would be hesitant to do since it would also hinder e-commerce by the country's businesses. In a 2013 press release Amazon said thousands of Chinese customers, including major corporations, depended on AWS for database management and other cloud-computing applications.

Wholesale blocking 

However, China has a long history of disregarding WHO rules, and risking a loss of business in playing a protectionist card as well as cutting off Internet traffic at the risk of affecting legitimate business sites.

In November 2014 Edgecast, which also provides web services like Amazon, was blocked in a clear stepping up of Internet censorship. Sites affected included Sony Mobile and The Atlantic magazine [Bloomberg].

Recently tvnewswatch learned that Internet users in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, were unable to access the Chinese version of the Mothercare website and were thus unable to make online purchases. This apparent block was itself hard to explain given the IP address is registered with China's Internet body.

Recent rules concerning banks and govt. departments and their use of technology also shows no regard for foreign competition . Symantec, Kaspersky and other foreign antivirus software is also effectively banned in official departments [tvnewswatch: China tightens policies over use of foreign tech]. Windows 8 is also banned from govt computers following Microsoft's ending support for XP. And now all software companies supplying banks and other companies must supply source code and comply to stringent vetting by authorities [tvnewswatch: China: business challenges & tightening grip on net].


So to believe that China won't cut off Amazon Web Services in order to block unwanted content could be considered rather naive.

Professor Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey, was not convinced that the mirror sites would remain effective over the several months that Reporters Without Borders intends to run the initiative.

Speaking to the BBC he said that once the authorities had found the mirrored webpages they could simply block the relevant URLs, or web addresses. "It is an interesting principle because it shows people are aware of censorship and want to do something about it," Professor Woodward said. Changing the URLs frequently might counter such efforts, but the professor question how often Reporters Without Borders were willing to change them.

Even if URLs were changed on a frequent basis, and AWS remained accessible, Internet users in such counties might have difficulty finding the mirrored websites.

Collateral damage

Nonetheless, Reporters Without Border remain clear in their determination to publicise the phenomena of Internet censorship and disseminate information banned in certain regions.

"The censoring country would be unlikely to block one of these servers because the collateral disruption and damage would outweigh the benefits to be gained from restoring censorship," the organisation said [Betanews]. It is not the first time AWS has been used to circumvent censorship. In 2014 a banned report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists concerning an exposé of the use of offshore tax havens by Chinese politicians and business moguls was made accessible using the service[ChinaFile].

Activists believe that Chinese censors won't block sites like AWS and GitHub, a cloud-hosting service many Chinese computer programmers use for storing data and sharing code.

Operation Collateral Freedom, as it has been dubbed, may open one door, but the irony is that there may well be collateral damage as other doors are shut.

King-wa Fu, an Assistant Professor and censorship researcher at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, says that the Chinese government will eventually play hard ball.

If the mirror sites attract a tipping-point level of Chinese visitors, Fu fears "that the Chinese government would block Amazon or ask Amazon to take down the contents."

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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