Beating the blocks: Bringing democracy to distribution

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International experience shows that attempts by a state to control online media, and particularly access to international news sources, are unlikely to be successful. You may be able to jam a traditional broadcast signal but new media technology is proving difficult to block and can support freedom of speech and democracy.

In 2011 the BBC Persian Service woke up to find that it was off air. This was no power failure or transmitter fault. Somebody was jamming their satellite signal. This is not the work of an amateur. Satellite jamming is an expensive and highly sophisticated technology. The BBC had little doubt who was to blame and made representations to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)’s Radio Regulations Board – an industry body of which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a member. What is interesting about this chain of events though is what the audience did next. They turned elsewhere for BBC content. Online.

Now that would seem a rather obvious statement – but the BBC Persian website is also blocked in Iran. So how did the channel get through? Did they come up with a sophisticated network of anti-blocking technologies – mirroring the site around the world? No – in fact, the BBC did nothing. They left it to the audience. And it worked. The audience – both inside and outside Iran – worked in droves to ensure the BBC content was still viewable via mirror sites and private streams. Even downloadable as Torrents.

Allowing the audience to find their own path to the content is important. Satellite jamming is expensive, illegal and liable to lead to serious diplomatic consequences but nobody can deny it is effective. Blocking video streams via the Internet is rarely likely to succeed.

Clearly the Iranian authorities control over the Internet is not at the same level as the “Great Firewall of China” – but a country with the ability to block satellite signals should in principle have no issues with blocking Internet sites. The difference here is that we are talking about Internet video streams and not websites.

Blocking entire websites or certain text subjects is a relatively easy matter – but blocking video streams can turn into a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse with viewers.  A video stream – particularly a live one – is a much more ‘slippery fish’ than a page of text. While a robotic crawler programme can seek out and block certain keywords – it will struggle with a live video feed. 

Let me give you an example. If I was an all powerful leader who took offence at a comment or article written by an international broadcasters – it would be a pretty easy matter to have their website’s IP-address blocked, I could in principle – depending on the degree of control I have over the Internet within my borders – also get searches to the site removed from local search engine providers. It may even be possible to find a way to get the site blocked on foreign and international search engines. But what if a viewer in another country found a way to stream the channels live video content to another IP-address? And another, and another. What if, in fact, the channel’s video stream was available on hundreds of IP-addresses – constantly changing and rotating? And that is before we even think about mobile delivery, iPhone apps etc. Before I know it the only way to block the content would be switch off the Internet.

The point is that blocking an Internet video stream is difficult because for the last decade users have been sharing illegally downloaded or live-streamed material to avoid paying for content. The same systems and technologies that cause media headaches for copyright reasons could be the salvation of those broadcasters providing much needed news and current affairs content to parts of the world that need it most.

Delivering video online may seem like the best way to get it jammed but in fact the opposite is true – as long as you allow the audience free and easy access to share the content themselves. Online delivery of video, as opposed to text may well prove to be the best way to transgress both political and physical borders

Of course, the despots of the world may one day catch up – and find a way to seal their borders against the flood of foreign video streams – but I doubt it. As long as the audiences want the content – they will find a way to get it.

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