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Net censorship: BBC story on kangkung fiasco blocked?

Gabey GohJan 16, 2014
  • Netizens report difficulty accessing BBC article on PM Najib’s kangkung calamity
  • Fears raised over violation of MSC Malaysia’s no-censorship of Internet guarantee

[Updated with MCMC comment, additonal technical information and possible workarounds]

NETIZENS in Malaysia are having difficulty accessing a BBC story on Prime Minister Najib Razak (pic) being derided online for a comment on rising prices, raising fears that the Internet was being censored in the country.
 
This goes against the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia) charter, in which the Malaysian Government guarantees the Internet would not be censored, barring special circumstances.
 
The BBC article, entitled #BBCtrending: Be careful what you say about spinach, chronicles the recent uproar over a statement made by Najib that the price of kangkung (or Chinese water spinach) has gone down. In a video that has gone viral, he lamented the fact that the Government has not been praised for this, but is being criticised for the rising cost of living.
 
His statement has been attacked by Opposition leaders and civil advocates for being insensitive to the plight of average Malaysians, who this year face a slew of price hikes and subsidy reductions.
 
Internet users in Malaysia reported difficulty accessing the specific BBC post beginning late last night (Jan 15), with timeouts occurring after a long wait for the page to load, while the rest of the BBC site remained accessible. The block seemed to have been lifted at noon today (Jan 16). 
 
Consumer technology website Lowyat.NET also reported difficulty accessing the page, “even after changing the DNS setup from TM’s to Google DNS,” with ‘TM’ referring to Telekom Malaysia, which owns TMnet, the country’s largest Internet service provider (ISP).
 
As reported by The Malaysian Insider, the kangkung statement sparked much derision by the Malaysian public, with many netizens airing their frustrations and displeasure on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

[Update 1]

Meanwhile, in a statement to The Malay Mail Online, industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) denied it was responsible for the block.
 
In a text message, its corporate communications chief Sheikh Raffie Abdul Rahman told the online newspaper, “To my knowledge no blocking.”
 
When referred to this article, he added, “As I said, to my knowledge no. MCMC nak block macam mana? (How can the MCMC block it?)”
 
As the time of this update, the MCMC had yet to respond to queries from Digital News Asia (DNA) on whether it was investigating the issue to determine who was responsible for the action that contravened the Government’s MSC Malaysia pledge.

Access to the BBC article had eased up a bit by noon today (Jan 16), although more reports started coming in that YouTube videos lampooning the Prime Minister and his wife Rosmah were also being blocked.
 
[End Update 1]

Responding to queries by DNA, security expert and freelance IT solutions provider @sniiffit said that in a nutshell, what was being done is that all packets requesting the specific page were being dropped at the ISP level.
 
“This effectively doesn't allow the page to load at all,” he said.
 
Asked whether it could be a case of Malaysian ISPs being hacked or compromised, or whether it was a case of traffic overload on BBC’s servers, @sniiffit said it was neither.
 
“BBC or any large portal uses a CDN (content delivery network) which handles page requests to its servers – if the servers are being overloaded, the main site bbc.co.uk would have been inaccessible.
 
“If it was hacked, the whole domain would have been inaccessible. This blocking of a specific URL would have only been possible by filtering the packets and manipulating the network traffic,” he said.
 
This block will mostly affect those who are tied to the TMnet service or Telekom Malaysia’s network, and users accessing the page via their mobile may or may not be affected, @sniiffit added.
 
According to Khairil Yusof, cofounder of Sinar Project, a non-profit organisation which uses open source technology and ideas to track and measure corruption, this is a similar filtering technique with the one deployed during Malaysia’s 13th General Election (GE13) in May last year.
 
“According to our tests, it’s the same type of filtering as done during GE13. It is not new and this confirms the Government still has these filters in place and is willing to use it,” he said in response to queries made by DNA via Twitter.
 
The censorship test conducted by Sinar Project yielded the following:
 

## Test 1: Check DNS, and IP block: Testing Same IP, different Virtual Host
HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found
## Test 2: Emulating a real web browser: Testing Same IP, actual Virtual Host, single packet
Timeout -- waited 5 seconds
## Test 3: Attempting to fragment: Testing Same IP, actual Virtual Host, fragmented packet
HTTP/1.1 200 OK

[Update 2]
 

The tests check for three conditions, Khairil told DNA. The first is to test if the page is being blocked by its IP (Internet Protocol) address or DNS (Domain Name Server) lookup. “This is where your browser asks, ‘Where is bbc.co.uk?’ A block at this level would mean all of BBC is not accessible and users [would need to use] another DNS service such as Google,” he explained.
 
“Test 2: Does a normal request go through? This simply mimics a normal request as if it were made by a user using a browser, to confirm that it is blocked.
 
“Test 3 checks to see if there is a specific filter in place that checks for some specific text in the browser request, such as the URL, and purposely breaks apart the request so that the filter doesn't match and block the request,” he explained.

[End Update 2]

This filtering would be a violation of the Multimedia Super Corridor Malaysia Bill of Guarantees, which specifically states that the Government would “ensure no Internet censorship.”
 
In the case of the BBC article, lawyer and DNA columnist Foong Cheng Leong raised a question regarding the legal grounds for blocking the BBC article.
 
“Section 263(2) of The Communications and Multimedia Act CMA 1998 only allows blocking of a site if it is reasonably necessary in preventing the commission or attempted commission of an offence,” he noted on Twitter.
 
The BBC article, while written in a slightly cheeky vein, only recounted facts however, and could not be construed as having committed any offence under Malaysian laws.
 
This is not the first time that attempts to restrict access to certain content online has been recorded and reported.
 
During the GE13, DNA reported that there was mounting evidence that certain ISPs may be throttling access to both alternative news portals and Opposition content on the Internet.
 
In a post published on Google Plus in May 2013, Sinar Project reported strong suspicions that some sort of basic content filtering to censor online media in Malaysia was taking place.
 
“Many people have reported difficulties with viewing the following video interviews linked from (independent news portal) Malaysiakini's interview article” conducted with the widow of private investigator Balasubramaniam, popularly known as ‘PI Bala.’
 
PI Bala was a crown witness in a trial over the controversial 2006 murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu. He himself died of a heart attack in March 2013, at the age of 53.
 
The Altantuya trial saw two special forces police officers being found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, although they were both acquitted by the Court of Appeal in August, 2013.
 
In the original trial, a third accused, Abdul Razak Baginda, a close family friend of Najib, then Deputy Prime Minister, was acquitted without his defence being called.
 
Sinar Project had conducted its investigation into possible Internet filtering on multiple networks based on the ID/URL of these videos served from Google's +YouTube cached servers located in on TMnet’s network.
 
“We strongly condemn the actions of TMnet and parties involved in censoring access to free media in Malaysia,” its report said.

[Update 3]

When asked what kind of person(s) or organisations would be able to block a webpage this way, Sinar Project’s Khairil said it has to be someone who has access to TMnet's network infrastructure.
 
“Tests for similar filtering during GE13 showed that it stopped at the first gateway server. I cannot confirm it for this one filtering, but to do this, somebody would have to have access to enable a processing-intensive filter that is applied to almost all servers accessed by users on TMnet’s network.
 
“This also implies that the software or hardware to apply the filtering has been installed,” he added. “Think of the firewall on your WiFi router at home, which you can configure. You would need to have access to do the same on TMnet’s equipment at its network centres.”

[End Update 3]

When asked for his opinion on the incident, @sniiffit said “trying to censor the Internet is a really bad idea,” in addition to the fact that the United Nations also condemns the filtering of content as “it is a human rights violation and against international law.”

[Update 4]

Readers who want to read the BBC article in question can do so at the blog of Opposition politician Lim Kit Siang, who has reposted it in its entirety here. Alternatively, they can find the article on Google Cache page here. Users who want to bypass such blocks can try surfing from  multiple locations using such services as LocaBrowser.

[End Update 4] 

Related stories:
 
GE13: Evidence of websites, political content being throttled (Updated)

Banning technology just isn’t the right remedy

Net censorship: Do the ends justify the means?
 
Evidence Act, censorship, control issues and other #facepalms
 
Web Index: Malaysia ranked 37th overall, poor rating in openness (Updated)
 
 
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