Contrabandwidth

People can get almost anything on the black market — drugs, passports, even human organs. Now add Web sites to the list. Inside many authoritarian regimes that closely monitor and censor the Internet, access to blocked Web sites has become a black market commodity like any other. Typically, the process is simple: Savvy black marketers ...

People can get almost anything on the black market -- drugs, passports, even human organs. Now add Web sites to the list. Inside many authoritarian regimes that closely monitor and censor the Internet, access to blocked Web sites has become a black market commodity like any other. Typically, the process is simple: Savvy black marketers in cybercafes, universities, private homes, and elsewhere exploit technological loopholes to circumvent government filters and charge fees for access. According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) (www.opennetinitiative.net), a research organization devoted to tracking blocked Web sites, black market access to filtered pages in Saudi Arabia runs anywhere from $26 to $67 per Web site.

Such tactics are becoming increasingly common. Shahin Amard, who runs a Web site (www.derafsh-kaviyani.com, blocked in Iran for its unsanctioned religious content) from an undisclosed location, says that people constantly "e-mail from inside Iran and ask for direction, help, and advice" in gaining access to the Web. But, he says, "the majority of people … give up when they don't get through, or they get scared and don't try anymore."

Sometimes, it is the authoritarians that profit from the illegal trade. In Cuba, where Fidel Castro presides over one of the world's most technologically repressive regimes, the Communist government limits Internet access both by making the Web prohibitively expensive and by blocking unsuitable material (roughly defined as any site that doesn't promote Cuban tourism). Only a small minority of state officials are allowed limited Internet access. Yet computers are widely accessible. And, according to Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, many state officials sell passwords and account information on the black market for monthly fees of about $20 to $30. Buyers, Peters says, use the Net access to visit free online e-mail services to connect with friends and family in other countries or to read foreign news sources.

People can get almost anything on the black market — drugs, passports, even human organs. Now add Web sites to the list. Inside many authoritarian regimes that closely monitor and censor the Internet, access to blocked Web sites has become a black market commodity like any other. Typically, the process is simple: Savvy black marketers in cybercafes, universities, private homes, and elsewhere exploit technological loopholes to circumvent government filters and charge fees for access. According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) (www.opennetinitiative.net), a research organization devoted to tracking blocked Web sites, black market access to filtered pages in Saudi Arabia runs anywhere from $26 to $67 per Web site.

Such tactics are becoming increasingly common. Shahin Amard, who runs a Web site (www.derafsh-kaviyani.com, blocked in Iran for its unsanctioned religious content) from an undisclosed location, says that people constantly "e-mail from inside Iran and ask for direction, help, and advice" in gaining access to the Web. But, he says, "the majority of people … give up when they don’t get through, or they get scared and don’t try anymore."

Sometimes, it is the authoritarians that profit from the illegal trade. In Cuba, where Fidel Castro presides over one of the world’s most technologically repressive regimes, the Communist government limits Internet access both by making the Web prohibitively expensive and by blocking unsuitable material (roughly defined as any site that doesn’t promote Cuban tourism). Only a small minority of state officials are allowed limited Internet access. Yet computers are widely accessible. And, according to Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, many state officials sell passwords and account information on the black market for monthly fees of about $20 to $30. Buyers, Peters says, use the Net access to visit free online e-mail services to connect with friends and family in other countries or to read foreign news sources.

So, will buying access to blocked Web sites remain a part of the black market bazaar? As long as governments try to restrict what sites their citizens can visit, the answer is probably yes. But ONI Executive Director Ronald Deibert warns that government censorship "is spreading worldwide, and… the countries that are doing it are getting better at it." Which means the price is going up.

Kate Palmer is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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