Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

Technical failure, not censorship

Posted on February 9, 2010

There have been recent claims that access to a number of international websites was deliberately blocked for New Zealand internet users.

Clare Swinney at InfoNews writes that Orcon, Slingshot and Telecom have blocked access to infowar.com and prisonplanet.tv, sites run by documentary maker and conspiracist Alex Jones.

John Ozimek at The Register also questions the blocks but notes that nhl.com, peopleofwalmart.com and some Facebook games were also blocked.

These sites are now all accessible again.

A Technical Explanation

From the Slingshot support forum:

It's an issue with Limelight Networks CDN in the New Zealand region. Valve/Steam use Limelight's CDN to deliver parts of Steam including the Steam Store. Due to a routing fault with a transit provider Optus that arose nearly 4 days ago, many New Zealand ISPs now no longer have connectivity to Limelight's CDN servers and thus unable to access the Steam store. 3 of the 4 largest ISPs in NZ including Telecom NZ, Slingshot and Orcon may be affected by this. Other high profile services also hosted by Limelight's CDN are similarly offline including PSN Home and updates, Xbox Live Marketplace downloads along with many popular computer games genre websites.

At Tech Liberty we find the explanation that it was a technical problem to be far more convincing than the claims that it was a deliberate block. This is especially true as the sites that were 'blocked' cover a wide range of innocuous sites. Please email us if you have any evidence to the contrary.

A Problem with Censorship

This issue does reveal one of the problems with secret internet censorship schemes - how can you tell whether the failure to access a site is a technical problem if you know that the government is blocking sites too?

The internet filtering system developed by the Department of Internal Affairs (still not enabled to the best of our knowledge) is designed to show a "This webpage has been blocked" message if you try to visit a banned webpage. How well this will work is unknown.

The list of blocked sites is secret so there is no way to check whether the site you are trying to access is on the banned list or not. Government filtering not only adds an additional point of failure to the global internet, it also adds uncertainty and lack of transparency to the problem of determining if there even is a problem.

Posted by Thomas Beagle

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