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Fighting censorship online: 'It's an ongoing race'

Censorship affects countless millions worldwide. Now a group of international broadcasters has launched a website designed to help users bypass blocks. DW's Guido Baumhauer discusses why Deutsche Welle got involved.

Türkei Erdogan auf Bildschirm (Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose)

Turks have been subject to massive censorship - including an outright ban on Wikipedia - as part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent crackdowns on civil liberties

DW: Mr. Baumhauer, according to the Freedom on the Net Report 2016, internet freedom has declined globally for six consecutive years. Users in China, Syria and Iran are among the most affected. The report also states that governments are increasingly censoring social networks and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. How does this affect strategies to hold online censorship in check?

The basic concept hasn't changed. Millions of people are affected by online censorship, it happens across the globe, it affects social media as well, and it's nothing new to DW. We know exactly that there are governments out there who don't want us to get into the country to make sure that our content reaches the people who live there. Depending on how the internet is set up technically in a certain country, it can be very easy to block websites. However, in some societies, for instance in Iran, the young generation is very capable when it comes to bypassing censorship - that also goes for messaging apps. We at DW won't accept censorship, and wherever it happens, we'll try to find a way around that. Bypass Censorship is just another approach.

The website provides download links and guides for a number of tools that help you go online without being tracked or get access to blocked content. How exactly does that work?

Some users at some point might have tried to watch a movie that was released in another country, for instance in the US, but not yet in their own country. They might have used some kind of VPN (virtual private network) software. These tools make it look like they're an American user, that way they get access to US servers. The tools we recommend on the website use a similar technology. After downloading them, they help users connect to various servers, and thus offer unrestricted internet access to them. For example, we use PSIPHON for our Farsi and Amharic services. Both Iran and Ethiopia are pretty good at censoring.

Some of the tools on the website, for instance TOR, are quite well-known, at least to people who know a thing or two about encryption. Does this mean the website is aimed at users who aren't familiar with these topics?

Guido Baumhauer (DW)

DW's Guido Baumhauer hopes that DW's knowledge of combating censorship can help internet users worldwide

Most of the tools have been out there for a while; none of them are brand new. In countries where censorship is a daily routine, let's say Iran or China, we find a lot of internet-savvy users who know what they are doing. But other users elsewhere might want to get access and feel a little helpless to begin with. We want to show them what possibilities they have.

Additionally, the website always provides download links for the newest versions of the tools. The moment the censors realize how the technology works, they start blocking the servers. The tool basically adapts to the censorship and tries to keep the road to free internet access open. It's an ongoing race and it will not stop until one side backs down - and that will definitely not be us. We will do everything we can to help people get access to information, because we believe freedom of speech is the highest value for people. Even if we only reach a few people through the website, it will be worth it.

But aren't you worried that the whole website might be blocked once word gets out?

That's definitely something that's going to happen, and we have to find ways for users to access the information on the website through other means. When content on the DW website gets blocked, for instance in Iran or China, we find ways around that and we'll do the same with Bypass Censorship. For example, we offer users to email the tools to them. That might sound stupid and very simple, but it works.

Symbolbild China Internetzensur Zensur Internet (Getty Images)

Experts say that tens of thousands of internet police are employed to implement China's "Great Firewall"

Bypass Censorship sounds like a project that could have been founded by activists or a hacker group. Why are leading international broadcasters getting involved?

If we're talking about providing free access to censored content that people should be able to see in order to know what is happening in their country and around them - which does not include promoting things that are lawless - I think we have the same mindset.

We have great people who know ways around censorship and we want to share this knowledge. In that respect, I think there is no difference between people who call themselves activists and broadcasters like DW.

Bypass Censorship is co-sponsored by Deutsche Welle, the BBC, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), France Médias Monde (FMM) and the Open Technology Fund. Guido Baumhauer is DW's Managing Director of Distribution, Marketing and Technology.

This interview was conducted by Helena Kaschel.

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