Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political party was victorious in Turkey's closely watched municipal elections Sunday, but the prime minister's effort to squelch online criticism in the run-up to the vote probably wasn't much help. His government blocked Twitter and YouTube after embarrassing documents and recordings surfaced suggesting, among other things, corruption in Mr. Erdogan's inner circle. He has denied the allegations and said the tapes were fake. Then again, he has also threatened to shut down Facebook. "We will wipe out all of these," he said on the eve of the social-media crackdown.
Yeah, good luck with that. Within hours of the Twitter block on March 20, workarounds surfaced. The cat and mouse game began. Turkish Web users could use Google's Public DNS, or Domain Name Service, rather than Turkey's DNS to get back to tweeting. Protesters spread the word by spray-painting the workaround on buildings. Twitter also helped out blocked users in Turkey, releasing a workaround using SMS text messaging on cellphones.
In response, Turkey started blocking Google's DNS, the first country ever to do so. No problem. Savvy users set up virtual private networks, or VPNs, that masked their online activity. A popular service is Spice VPN, which touts a "Double VPN for Paranoid Anonymity."
Others downloaded the program Tor, which can run from a flash drive and enables what is known as "onion routing." It sends users' requests to several places on the Internet before returning the results censor-free, "so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it's going," as the Tor website explains. These "proxy servers" mask your true Internet address and location, allowing you to surf the Web unafraid of detection. The mice, as the Erdogan government discovered, are smarter than the cat.
But the game continues elsewhere. On March 3, Russian commandos cut power and communications lines of the Ukrainian Navy and stationed ships equipped with jamming technology off the coast of Crimea to sabotage wireless networks. Ukraine was ready. According to the computer-intelligence company Renesys, at least eight Internet exchanges (a point of connection to other Internet networks) and tens of thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables fortify Ukraine's Internet. Snipping a few lines or jamming a few wireless links won't take it down.
The message to autocrats is clear: You can't block communications, or at least not for long. Technology moves too fast. Iranian censorship, for instance, remains strong, but some two-thirds of households in Tehran have illegal satellite dishes despite a 1994 ban, as Iran's own Culture and Guidance Minister Ali Jannati told state news agency Irna in November.
If you search from a browser in China for Tiananmen Square, the results will be censored by the ministry of public security's Golden Shield Project (also known as the Great Firewall of China). The search usually returns tourist information, along with a limp disclaimer: "According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown." Twitter and Facebook are also blocked.
But the Great Firewall has many holes, including vulnerability to VPNs, onion routing and special-built software such as Freegate or Psiphon, programs that send users' requests to the cloud of servers outside China and return uncensored results. Anyone in China with an iPhone can set up a simple VPN to reach the outside world—useful even if you're just visiting Shanghai and want to post on Facebook.
Yet while censorship grows, the U.S. is becoming less serious about ensuring a free Internet. The Commerce Department announced on March 14 that the U.S. may soon relinquish control over Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, through which the U.S. has long protected open access to the Web. The U.S. supervision would be replaced by "a global multi-stakeholder community."
Yikes. The United Nations of Internet sounds like a really dumb idea. Autocrats will find it easier to limit access to politically undesirable content and make it harder, though not impossible, for citizens to bypass the censorship. Why would the U.S. want to start another cat-and-mouse game?
Even as the urge to control the Internet seems to grow, so are the ways of fighting back. Private, parallel networks that are immune to censorship are being created out of a mesh of cheap Wi-Fi technology. These nodes, with about $100 of equipment, can be set up on rooftops around a city using solar power. One in Vienna is known as "FunkFeuer." The nodes communicate with one another using line-of-sight antennas—which can be made out of Pringles cans, in a pinch—and can send, receive and forward messages, emails and content among themselves.
If Russia decides to invade another country, one without Ukraine's ability to handle digital disruption, the State Department could airlift or smuggle in 10,000 of these nodes for a mere $1 million. One node at the border or one satellite link to connect to the unrestricted Internet and, voilà, censorship is defeated.
Call it Wi-Fi without Borders. Or Packets of America. Whatever. Maybe practice on North Korea, and then Cuba. Show autocrats that the network is mightier than the sword.