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     Feb 25, 2012

Web police show their power
By Martin J Young

HUA HIN, Thailand - Internet services across Iran were disrupted this week as the government stepped up its offensive against online activity prior to national elections in early March. Iran, no stranger to Internet censorship, rendered email services and social networking websites inaccessible.

Secure browsing and virtual private networking (VPN) software vendors were also blocked as they are often used to circumvent government web filters. The heavy handedness prompted an

outcry from media organizations, businesses, education institutions, and private web users, but no communication from the government has been forthcoming.

Foreign websites using the https secure protocol were not available, which rendered thousands of people without email, banking or finance services. Enterprise users relying on VPN technology to access computers on networks in other countries were also stifled.

Internet usage in Iran has expanded to around 30 million people during the past decade. Government officials intend to create a "pure" national system that would comprise a closed intranet for the Islamic Republic isolating it from the rest of the world.

Thailand has also been tightening its grip on web activity. It was the first country to publicly endorse Twitter's country by country content filters, and is employing more methods of tracking and monitoring its citizens. Internet services within the kingdom have been facing bottlenecks and service outages recently as the government ramps up the sophistication of its Internet filtration technology.

According to local news organizations, a high-tech nerve center in the Bangkok suburbs manned by hundreds of technicians has blocked an estimated half a million websites over the past couple of years. Many requests from within the country are now redirected through the website of the Ministry of Information and Communication Thailand (w3.mict.go.th) which causes slow loading - if the pages are accessible at all.

The targets are primarily websites with content that insults the monarchy under strict lese majeste laws, and pornography, but thousands of unrelated sites are getting caught in the digital trawling net as many need to pass through it to be checked for whether they are on any government blacklists.

Local and expat forums and social sites in Thailand have been flooded with complaints from web users within the country trying to access innocent international websites such as email providers, news, and technology portals and getting instead only white pages and browser hang-ups. A decrease in Internet reliability and productivity does not bode well for a country trying to attract foreign investment.

The government has also introduced a scheme called "Cyber Scouts", calling on public volunteers to trawl the web and report incidents of monarchy defamation on Thai social networking websites.

In India, Google was forced to remove "objectionable content" from one of its India portals following complaints from politicians this week and an ongoing court case involving Facebook, Yahoo and Google could result in more web censorship in the world's largest democracy.

Kapil Sibal, India's telecoms and IT minister, aims to increase web monitoring for social media in an effort to clamp down on what he and other politicians consider offensive and blasphemous material. His suggested that companies would be asked for information even on content posted outside India and that the ministry would evolve guidelines and mechanisms to deal with the issue.

Meanwhile China keeps adding bricks to its firewall with no sign of change in the foreseeable future and Myanmar, which seems to be slowly awakening from its military induced slumber, still has a long way to go to drag itself out of the digital dark ages.

Following last week's revelations that Google has been circumventing security settings in Apple's Safari browser, Microsoft accused the search company of doing the same thing with Internet Explorer (IE). The software giant has stepped up its offensive against Google, which has suffered a week of bad press over data harvesting and privacy issues.

It has been discovered that Google bypasses IE's P3P privacy protection feature, which demands that websites present a statement of intent to the user before placing potentially malicious or data mining cookies on their computer. P3P is an official recommendation of the W3C Web standards body; Google has manipulated its own policy by adjusting its format and indicating a benign cookie so that it is automatically accepted by browsers such as IE that use this standard.

Microsoft executives are urging concerned consumers to use IE9, which has a feature called Tracking Protection that cannot be bypassed with spurious P3P policies from websites gathering personal data.

Google responded by stating that P3P is "impractical" and widely "non-operational" in addition to "The reality is that consumers don't, by and large, use the P3P framework to make decisions about personal information disclosure". Nowhere was a denial that they are bypassing this dated protocol to gather information on web users' browsing habits.

Google is not alone; Facebook, which also employs data harvesting methods, also stated "the P3P standard is now out of date and does not reflect technologies that are currently in use on the web" on its web page regarding privacy policies.

Google's gadget gurus have been developing futuristic glasses that will stream information to the wearer in real time. The "smart glasses", due to go on sale at the end of the year, will feature a heads-up display and will cost around the same as a smart-phone.

According to the New York Times, the glasses would be Android powered with a small screen positioned a few inches from the eye streaming data over a 3G or 4G connection. The sci-fi specs would also include a built-in camera and a GPS-based navigation system that is manipulated by subtle head tilts.

Naturally the Google goggles would integrate with the rest of the software in the Google ecosystem such as Maps and Latitude, a location-sharing service, and all of the data therein. The team is already working on the privacy issues, the primary one being that people are made aware that they are being recorded by someone wearing a set of tech specs.

Google has yet to make an official statement and has not mentioned any advertising aspects of the project but, given the company's revenue base, ads are probably not too far behind.

Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.

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