GE13: Evidence of websites, political content being throttled
By Edwin Yapp May 3, 2013
- Increasing evidence that access to political content is being restricted is a serious and troubling matter
- MCMC and ISPs urged to work together to ensure open, unfettered access to information this GE13
NOTE: Story has been updated with MCMC statement below
THE battle for Malaysia’s future took an ugly turn in cyberspace this week with evidence mounting that certain Internet service providers (ISPs) may be throttling access to both alternative news portals and Opposition content on the Internet.
Independent news website Malaysiakini first reported its suspicions on April 24 after readers had complained of difficulty getting to the site.
Late last night (May 1), social media was abuzz as netizens on the popular Lowyat.Net forum came out with what looked like technical evidence that access to Opposition Facebook pages as well as their videos on YouTube was being throttled.
The technical data on the forum was verified by independent experts contacted by DNA, who also conducted their own tests.
Malaysiakini chief executive officer and co-founder Premesh Chandran said the portal had evidence that shows access to Malaysiakini was being restricted.
After receiving complaints from readers last week, his staff conducted investigations in which they tracked access to Malaysiakini from various points, he said on the Digital News Asia (DNA) segment of the Tech Talk show on BFM radio on May 2.
“We also looked at our Google Analytics and web statistics, and took a long time to figure out what’s happening,” he said. “But by Friday (April 26), we noticed that for 60 seconds the site would be available, and in the next 60 seconds, you’d get a delay or it hangs.
“We put all this data together and showed it to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). We also informed the ISPs regarding what was going on and alerted them to the possibility that someone could have hacked their systems and that they should look at it,” he added.
Premesh (pic) said that by Sunday (April 28) however, this pattern of Malaysiakini being intermittently accessible had disappeared.
“We’re still monitoring [the situation]. Basically, this shows that someone has been able to access the country’s main ISPs and actually create these blockages.
“This blocked access is not only limited to Malaysiakini as our YouTube videos produced by KiniTV have also been affected,” he added.
Free access to info crucial
With Malaysia going to the polls on May 5 in the country’s 13th general election (GE13), ISPs and the MCMC were urged to be increasingly vigilant against any attempts to prevent open and free access to the Internet.
GE13 is shaping up to be the tightest election ever, with many already describing it as “the mother of all elections,” and much of the battle is playing out in cyberspace.
“A lot is happening online – just look at your Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines,” DNA executive editor A. Asohan told Tech Talk.
“This is particularly true of the Opposition parties as they have taken to the Net to campaign,” he said on Malaysia’s first and only business radio station, noting that the Opposition had little or no access to the mainstream media.
News that online news portals and Opposition content were being blocked intermittently should be investigated.
“There is something going on and it’s a very troubling and serious issue as Malaysia has the Multimedia Super Corridor Bill of Guarantees which states that there shall be no censorship of the Internet,” Asohan said.
“But obviously some parties are finding ways to slip past this ‘no censorship guarantee’ to restrict free and fair access to information,” he added.
Asohan urged the industry regulator to conduct a thorough investigation into this alleged ISP throttling.
“I would like to see MCMC … find out who is restricting access to Malaysians, as I believe this is a serious betrayal of the Malaysian Government’s own stated objectives and guarantees to the Internet businesses out there that there’ll be no censorship.
“It is very important to this nation’s credibility that this be investigated. If there are rogue elements within the ISPs, they have to be identified and brought to book,” he added.
[Updated with MCMC statement]
In a response, the MCMC said it was investigating several complaints on the issue.
“Preliminary investigations indicate there were no such restrictions by ISPs as alleged by certain quarters,” said its head of strategic communications Sheikh Raffie Abd Rahman.
“However, congestion faced by the public in accessing the alleged affected sites could be due to a heightened increase in the number of visitors to websites related to GE13 in the past few days.
“So far we have only received one official complaint on Monday, April 29, from Umno Online claiming that its readers faced difficulty in accessing the portal. However, we are still waiting for an official complaint from Malaysiakini on the same matter,” he added.
In its statement, the MCMC said it views the allegation with great concern. If the ISPs were found to have restricted access not in accordance with the law, action can be taken under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 for breaching their license conditions.
However, it advised the public to not jump to conclusions before a thorough investigation has been completed, citing several possibilities that could affect quality of service, such as network routing and capacity constraints due to an increase in the number of people accessing those particular websites.
“It is also possible that some of these websites experienced DDoS attacks. The root of the problem is difficult to ascertain without conducting a comprehensive network audit,” the MCMC said. “The ISPs have been advised by MCMC to step up their respective network security levels two weeks ago in order to avoid any service disruption.”
DDoS attacks too
Independent news websites such as Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider have also reported increasing Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against them.
According to Goh Su Gim (pic), security advisor for Asia at cybersecurity company F-Secure, website and hosting service providers should look into applying filtering rules to prevent such attacks.
A DDoS attack happens when hundreds of thousands of requests originating from compromised machines swamp a server in a bid to take it down.
“On the ISPs’ side, they should assist by looking for spikes in the traffic and apply rules on the fly that can actually deflect these rogue connections being made to the server,” he said on Tech Talk.
Premesh said that in the last two years, Malaysiakini has come under a lot of DDoS attacks, which convinced it to migrate its platform out with the help of Google and Microsoft’s Azure cloud service.
This has helped take the edge off these kinds of attacks, but the ISP throttling is a new type of threat.
“What’s happening now is the ‘man in the middle’ attack, where interference is placed strategically between the user and a particular website – something that is very difficult to defeat,” he said.
“We’ve had to use a secure HTTP protocol which creates a secure link, something that to a certain extent is able to defeat the interference between the user and website,” he added.
A secure HTTP protocol uses the ‘https://’ prefix instead of the typical ‘http://’ in a website’s URL or Internet address.
Clarity needed on polling day
When asked by BFM’s Tech Talk presenter Freda Liu on what else can be done to ensure that the Internet infrastructure is robust enough on May 5 so that Malaysians have free and full access to election information, F-Secure’s Goh said the “big name ISPs” are the ones that can ensure everything is up and running.
One of the things they can do is to cooperate together with the MCMC by monitoring the traffic on their networks, as they will have access to the origin of said traffic and can track spikes and the IP addresses and/ or regions from which these spikes come from, he added.
Malaysiakini’s Premesh pointed out that no matter how tense this election is going to be, people need to understand that there is a longer path Malaysia needs to take and that voting creates the legitimacy of governance.
“If this process is eroded, then it’s going to be very difficult for this country to go forward,” he said.
“So what we really like to see is the ISPs and MCMC working together to ensure that the Internet is available on May 5 when most people will be tuning in to find out the results.
“I think it will be a big issue if people feel they are not being informed on May 5, as this can actually generate a lot of uncertainly and chaos. But if they’re getting the news from all sides and if the news is consistent, they will understand that this is really the result and things can calm down,” he added.
As for access to the Malaysiakini website itself, the portal will look at alternative channels to disseminate information if the throttling or DDoS attacks continue.
Premesh said those wishing to have updates from Malaysiakini can stay close to its Facebook page and Twitter account on the day itself if they have trouble getting on to the website.
Online has most balanced GE13 coverage: Media watchdog