Net service shields Web users in Yugoslavia
- By Dan Verton
- Apr 18, 1999
Those fortunate enough to still have Internet access in Kosovo and other regions of Yugoslavia now have a way to send e-mail and to access U.S. government-sponsored radio broadcasts without the threat of being identified and prosecuted by Yugoslav security authorities.
Anonymizer Inc., a provider of anonymous Internet and e-mail services, last week began offering access to the World Wide Web audio services of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe radio broadcasts through its "Kosovo Privacy Project" Web site. The new site provides anonymous Web surfing and e-mail services to those caught in the middle of the crisis in Kosovo, enabling the free exchange of ideas without the threat of further repression.
The Kosovo Privacy Project, located at info.anonymizer.com/kosovo.shtml, offers instant access to VOA, RFE and about 20 other Web sites. Normally, Anonymizer can require several days to process requests for anonymous access.
In addition to adding NATO and other government information sites to the Kosovo instant access list, Anonymizer plans in the coming months to offer similar services for other human rights situations around the world—for example, in China.
Technology employed on the special site allows Web surfers and e-mail users to communicate abroad and visit the Web sites of VOA and RFE without revealing personal information that would tip-off local authorities to their activities and location. VOA and RFE, which recently began beaming programming into Yugoslavia 24 hours a day from locations in neighboring countries, are part of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), established by Congress in 1994.
Anonymizer launched the Kosovo Privacy Project after human rights organizations expressed concern that the Yugoslav government may be monitoring Internet and e-mail activity and cracking down on anyone who expresses dissenting views about Serb military activity in Kosovo. The Anonymizer service comes on the heels of a crackdown by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on foreign news media operating in Yugoslavia.
Richard Firestone, IBB Web Manager, said at least 3,645 users from the ".yu" (Yugoslavia) Internet domain have visited the IBB Web site during the last month for news and information on the crisis. "Any medium that gets your message through is important" when it comes to human rights initiatives, Firestone said.
"[However], by its interconnected nature, the Internet is much more vulnerable [to degradation] than broadcasting," he said. "As an example, we receive many reports from China that our Web site is inaccessible there."
According to Lance Cottrell, chief executive officer of Anonymizer, the company has been contacted by human rights advocates who are concerned about possible repercussions against those in Yugoslavia who are publishing information on the Web about the current situation.
Since the Web site went into operation on March 26, there have been several thousand users per day, Cottrell said. In fact, the feedback so far has been so positive that Cottrell said he plans to make similar services available to other human rights causes around the world, particularly those in China, where the government has been actively monitoring Internet traffic.
The technology is based on Anonymizer's anonymous re-mailer technology, which takes an e-mail message and strips away the author's user name and e-mail address before forwarding it on to its intended destination. The company's anonymous Web surfing services are accomplished through a server that acts as a surrogate between the Web user and the Web page they are viewing, thereby concealing the user's identity and geographic location.
"I wish we would have had this capability 10 years ago," said Chai Ling, a former leader of the 1989 pro-Democracy demonstrations in China's Tiananmen Square and the founder of Jenzabar.com, a U.S.-based Internet company focused on using information technology to allow student groups around the world to communicate securely.
Although they used fax machines to communicate to the world what was happening in Tiananmen Square, "the Internet is a powerful tool for communication and free speech," Chai said. "It is a technology that knows no country boundaries and empowers people who are powerless."
Daniel Kuehl, chairman of the Information Operations Department, School of Information Warfare and Strategy at the National Defense University, said the Internet provides a critical means of explaining to the people of Yugoslavia why the United States and NATO are carrying out a bombing campaign and will become increasingly important to human rights initiatives. "Is everyone connected to the Internet? Of course not," Kuehl said. "But not everyone watches [TV] either, and no one would argue that it is unimportant."
Allen Thomson, a former CIA analyst who has been monitoring discussions on the Web during the crisis, said anonymous Web services are a major step toward protecting free speech and human rights around the world. "Every spy [agency] on the planet undoubtedly is trying to monitor the Internet," he said. Although in the United States anonymous Internet service is of limited significance, "in less liberal regimes, [its absence] could quickly lead to the midnight knock on the door," Thomson said.