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The APC European Internet Rights Project

Internet Censorship Case Study:
Radio B92 and OpenNet

By Slobodan Markovic,
Internodium


Background

During the break-up of former Yugoslavia the majority of local mainstream media decided to take a non-critical attitude towards negative social phenomena such as hate speech, war clamouring, promotion of ethnic intolerance, etc. Such media activity, without any doubt, heavily influenced courses of bloody wars that raged trough the Balkans during the past ten years.

From the very beginning of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Belgrade's Radio B92 refused to conform to the trend of giving blind support to the official policy of Serbian state officials. This station was always providing its listeners with uncensored news, no matter what positive or negative impact this news could have on the course of the official policy. Instead of engaging in sabre rattling, Radio B92 was calling for civility and reason; instead of engaging in a campaign of xenophobia and spreading of ethnic hatred, the radio was promoting multiculturalism and tolerance.

Despite the dramatic developments that started rolling out at a tremendous rate, the radio stayed on the same editorial course. Soon it became one of the most popular radio stations in Belgrade and many of its shows were directly broadcast or re-broadcast on a number of local media in Serbia.

In many attempts to silence all forms of criticism of the official politics, the regime of the Serbian (and later Yugoslav) president Slobodan Milosevic tried numerous forms of open repression over the independent media. During its history, Radio B92 had been frequently harassed by the regime. The radio's broadcasting frequency (92,5 MHz FM) was jammed on numerous occasions by the secret police and the station was closed a couple of times - during the massive pro-opposition civil and student protests in the spring of 1991 and winter of 1996, shortly after the beginning of NATO bombings in 1999, and for the last time at the beginning of summer this year.

Exposed to this kind of pressure, the station was constantly trying to find or build channels for distributing information about local events to a domestic and international public. The use of the Internet and satellite radio/TV broadcasts proved to be the most effective ways of achieving those goals.

The Internet division of Radio B92 started operating in 1992, using a tiny link with the Yugoslav Academic Network for UUCP email transfers only. In 1996, Radio B92 established a leased line with XS4ALL, an ISP in Amsterdam, and Opennet.org was formed. The link with XS4ALL was used since then for encrypted email transfers, distribution of the radio's news bulletins to thousand of email addresses worldwide. Apart from that, Opennet servers hosted a number of Web sites and discussion forums for various NGOs, anti-war campaigns, feminist groups, etc.

When the radio had been closed for the second time, during the massive civil and student protests in 1996, its program was broadcast for the first time over the Internet in Real Audio format. Those days, on the streets of Belgrade, one could hear for the first time that the most information on what was happening in the city was coming from the Internet, meaning by Real Audio stream or email news bulletins of Radio B92.

However, despite this "Internet revolution in Belgrade" (Wired 5.04), members of the ruling establishment did not reach for some wider Internet censorship, counting on the fact that at that time less than 100,000 people had some kind of Internet access (and that number represented less than 1% of the total population).

Instead of enforcing a full-scale control over the use of Internet services, the regime in Serbia decided to give its exponents a carte blanche for causing minor isolated incidents. In the case of Radio B92 a range of such incidents took place. They included:
  • investigating who of the employees was using email for communication with people abroad (1992);

  • attempts to infiltrate people into Opennet who would forward certain parts of employees emails to the secret police (1996);

  • exercising pressure on Telecom to occasionally disconnect the encrypted link between Opennet and XS4ALL, allowing members of the secret police to intercept the re-establishment of the encrypted link at the moment of encryption key exchange for later use for email deciphering (1997);

  • attempting to hijack Internet domains "b92.net" and "opennet.org" (1999).

A common feature of these cases was that they were carried out in a secret manner with a primary aim of spying on the activities of Radio B92's employees. On the other hand, the biggest incidents related to explicit censoring of Radio B92's Internet locations. This occurred twice, at the end of 1998 and 1999.



Threat

During the course of 1998, the Serbian government adopted new Law on Universities. Following the law's provisions, government took away from the academic community complete responsibility of forming steering boards and appointing Deans of all schools and universities in Serbia. During the process of "managing things" at the universities, the government quickly installed Deans who were in direct disagreement with free-minded professors.

One of the most respected schools in Serbia, the School of Electrical Engineering at the Belgrade University (ETF), was severely hit by these measures and more than 58 professors, docents, assistants and researchers were fired as politically unsuitable.

At the end of 1998, a group of ETF students initiated a Web site called "ETF Monkeys". The site carried critical texts about the dramatic situation in the school, comic cartoons featuring government-appointed Dean Vlada Teodosic and his deputy Milos Laban, as well as a discussion forum. The site contents were hosted at the Angelfire.com servers, located outside of Yugoslavia.

This student initiative got a wide promotion in the independent media and quickly became a popular Web destination. Radio B92 also supported the "ETF Monkeys" and featured their site in the radio's daily news bulletins and on its Web site.

Obviously very irritated by a sudden public focus on him and his controversial activities at the university, ETF Dean Vlada Teodosic decided to censor the sites of "ETF monkeys" and Radio B92.

From the contents of an anonymous message sent to Radio B92 by an employee of the Belgrade University's Computer Center (which administers the Yugoslav Academic Network), the chain of events was reconstructed as follows:

At the beginning of December 1998 (most probably on Thursday, December the 3rd) ETF Dean deputy Milos Laban phoned the Computer Center of the Belgrade University (RCUB). He said that he was acting in accord with a decision made by the Dean of ETF and asked network engineer on duty to block certain Internet locations. After the engineer explained that RCUB does not have any power over those locations, Laban become furious and started threatening. The engineer than called the manager of RCUB - Dr Zoran Jovanovic - and informed him about the Laban's request. Mr. Jovanovic called back Laban and, after brief consultations, issued an order for putting requested filters on network traffic routers in RCUB.

It seems, by judging the known facts, that the Dean of ETF Vlada Teodosic made a unilateral decision to introduce censorship, without any prior consultations with rector of the Belgrade University Jagos Puric. The formal decision in a written form and signed by the Dean of ETF, had been delivered to RCUB only after the filters had been put in place:
    "I'm informing you hereby that the Internet has been misused once again for insulting and underrating of certain members of the ETF Board, by using a Web site on Angelfire.com server, to which a link was provided on the Radio B92's Web site. The Dean of ETF was presented on this site in a Nazi uniform and with a Nazi salute, while Dr Milos Laban, a member of the ETF Board, was presented as a monkey. We demand from you to disable use of the Internet for distribution of such materials in any form, including the form of email. That is your responsibility according to Law on Public Information, as well as according to the common rules of the international network that are forbidding all forms of misuse."


After the filters had been put on for certain IP addresses on network routers, all forms of Internet communication had been cut for those IP addresses. In this case it was a question of Angelfire.com servers (which hosted the "ETF Monkeys" site), b92.net (Radio B92's Internet location) and siicom.com (one of the mirror sites for Radio B92's news archive).

By this act, Dean Vlada Teodosic denied access to all the contents of the Angelfire.com servers (not only to the site of "ETF Monkeys"!), as well as to all contents situated on Radio B92's and Opennet's servers (daily news bulletins, Web sites and discussion groups of various NGOs, independent media, civic initiatives, etc). All students, professors and associates of all the universities in Serbia (about 90 institutions), as well as all the other users of the Yugoslav Academic Network, like institutes and specialized research centers, were hit by this decision.

The Internet traffic filters on the Academic Network were functioning without any changes for more than a month. During the mid-January 1999, without any prior explanation, the ban was lifted for access to the locations of the Radio B92. The filters that were cutting access to the site of "ETF Monkeys" were not removed at that moment and it is not known when all of them were removed. The lack of this information was caused by a general lack of public interest in Internet censorship issues, by the removal of filters for Radio B92's servers (which further lessened the media pressure on this affair) and, of course, by the start of NATO bombing in the spring of 1999, which completely captured the attention of Yugoslav citizens.

After the end of the war, the management of the ETF once again introduced Internet traffic filters aimed at Radio B92 and Opennet servers. This event took place by the beginning of November 1999, when Vlada Teodosic ordered a similar blockade, but this time, taught by the previous experience, only for his school.

Even though this measure hit a much smaller group of Yugoslav Academic Network users (only those who had access to the Internet over the ETF's proxy server), the responsibility of the Dean nor the illegality of this censorship act was not decreased



Measures Taken To Counter The Threat

The following methods proved the most effective in countering this kind of censorship: content mirroring, changing IP server numbers frequently and using proxy servers for routing around the censorship.

As soon as the existence of filters was uncovered, the staff of Radio B92 and "ETF Monkeys" issued a call for help from the global Internet community. In the first few hours of the blockade ten alternative locations (mirrors) had been established for the two sites. The addresses of these alternative locations came quickly to the public thanks to increased media interest in the whole case.

As the introduction of filters completely disabled email communication, the staff of Opennet immediately started changing the IP addresses of its servers. Apart from that, news bulletins of Radio B92 were sent to the users of the Yugoslav Academic Network via servers, whose IP addresses were not filtered.

One more effective way of routing around the censorship was the use of public proxy servers for accessing the Internet. In this concrete case, the users of the ETF network could get access to the censored contents if they set-up their Internet client programs to use addresses of any public proxy servers, whose IP addresses were not filtered.



Results Achieved

Combining the methods outlined above, all censorship attempts based on putting Internet traffic filters on the key network routers of the Yugoslav Academic Network, were effectively stopped and made completely meaningless.



Lessons Learned

The affair with filters on the Yugoslav Academic Network emphasized the need for servers for publishing dissident materials and supporting dissident groups, outside of reach of a local repressive regime. If the "ETF Monkeys" and Radio B92 had been using only servers situated in Yugoslavia (Web servers, email servers, listservs, etc), any need for introducing censorship would not exist, as the local regime would manage to close the servers by quick and effective actions.

The next important element against the censorship attempts was to find ways to quickly inform the local and global public about the existence of censorship. Early calls for help resulted, in this case, in a huge response from individuals and institutions around the world, who responded to the call by mirroring the censored contents and thus making all censorship attempts meaningless.

The last, but not the least important aspect of the whole affair was the ability of Internet users to speak anonymously. Many governments have recently started questioning the ability of their citizens to speak anonymously in cyberspace, defending this by an alleged need to prevent different kinds of potential misuses (this trend in Europe is particularly supported by the current government in France). If the possibility of tracking Internet users by the government or the ISPs was in place, giving precise information about the acts of all persons involved, information would not become so quickly available to the public. A good deal of precious time needed for planning and launching counter measures to the censorship would be irreversibly lost.


December 2000.



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