Nice little profile of Hacktivism, including a very funny picture of Oxblood and a rather menacing picture of ProfD

Thursday » December 19 » 2002

Circumventing censorship
A new U.S. bill allocating millions to fight foreign political censorship of the Net is dividing the software movement

Christopher Shulgan
Citizen Special

Thursday, December 19, 2002

CREDIT: Yvonne Berg, For Techweekly

Hacktivist v. 1.0: The Programmer: Paul Baranowski co-developed a software program called Peekabooty which is designed to break through the Chinese government’s national firewall: “If you don’t have access to information, you have to believe whatever is told to you.”

Hacktivist v. 2.0: The Promotional Whiz: Since 1999, Oxblood Ruffin — he declines to disclose his real name — has presided over Hacktivismo, a collective of about 30 volunteer programmers from five continents: ‘I’m just interested in keeping the Internet open and free, specifically for the people living behind national firewalls. I don’t want to overthrow the government of China, or whatever. It’s not my business to get into political revolution.’

Hacktivist v. 3.0: The Academic: Professor Ronald Deibert runs the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab: ‘Hacktivism is fundamentally important to the development of global democracy in the 21st century.’

One day in November, 28-year-old Toronto computer programmer Paul Baranowski woke up in Washington, D.C., put on a suit, and walked to Capitol Hill to make a presentation before a congressional committee on China. The bipartisan committee monitors human rights abuses in China, and had invited Baranowski to speak because its members were curious about the Chinese firewall, a complex system of computer components that allows the most populous country on the planet to censor the Internet.

Speaking in his calm and measured tone, Baranowski told the panel that China operates a national firewall to prevent its citizens from accessing such media outlets as CNN, so that they never find out about Chinese human rights violations or living standards in other countries. Baranowski also said a number of grass-roots projects could allow citizens to break through the Chinese firewall. Some of the projects he mentioned include Invisible IRC, which would allow anonymous Internet chatting, and Baranowski’s own project developed with roommate Joey DeVilla, called Peekabooty.

Baranowski did not mention what ranks as one of the most ambitious of the anti-censorship projects, an effort called Six/Four led by Baranowski’s former co-worker, former partner and fellow Torontonian, Oxblood Ruffin. Baranowski’s omission probably wasn’t accidental. Ruffin and Baranowski have been estranged since February, when Baranowski left Ruffin’s Hacktivismo group, taking its most promising project, the Peekabooty program, with him. Now, as the U.S. government considers a bill that would allocate millions of dollars to support hacktivism’s ends, and the movement garners an increasing amount of media attention, Ruffin and Baranowski represent two rival, divergent approaches to the hacktivism movement. Another prominent hacktivist group, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, advocates a third approach.

The three differ on whether to accept government money for their efforts. Baranowski believes the end goal is censorship prevention, and the plain and simple truth is that money is needed to complete his Peekabooty software. Ruffin doesn’t like the idea of taking a handout from a government, who, he sees, isn’t exactly lily white in the censorship department itself. And the Citizen’s Lab falls in between.

All of which shows that the issue is picking up steam.

“I don’t think it’s just some fad, some peculiar thing that people on the Internet happen to be doing this week, like Web cams,” says Ronald Deibert, the professor who runs the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “Hacktivism is fundamentally important to the development of global democracy in the 21st century.”

“Hacktivist” is an amalgamtion of “hacker” and “activist.” The noun refers to a hacker who uses his knowledge of computer systems to further a political cause. Currently, even the most prominent hacktivist projects are grass-roots and volunteer-driven. Perpetually strapped for cash, the projects are staffed by programmers who work when they have spare time and feel like spending an extra few hours starring into a computer screen.

As many as 21 national governments censor their citizens’ Internet use. In such countries as Syria and Tunisia, the state maintains tight control of Internet service providers, tracking which pages are visited by its surfers and preventing citizens from accessing some sites. For example, a Web surfer in Saudi Arabia is unable to read the section of Amnesty International’s site that covers Saudi Arabia. Information about Christianity and the Jewish religion, as well as sex education, popular music, and anything that is even vaguely pornographic — including swimsuit e-commerce sites — is also blocked by the government. Other countries search e-mail for keywords, such as “Falun Gong,” the name of a spiritual organization banned by the Chinese government.

China has about 60 million Internet users, one of the largest numbers of any country. The Communist government has worked to squelch any role for the Net as a forum for free speech. Censorshop has even been extended to China’s Internet cafés, thousands of which were closed after a deadly fire in Beijing. They were allowed to reopen only after installing monitoring software. Amnesty International, which claims some 30,000 officers have been assigned to Internet duty, is seeking the release of 33 people it says were imprisoned for online subversion.

“Ever since I was a little kid, censorship has pissed me off,” says Baranowski. “If you don’t have access to information, you have to believe whatever is told to you.”

Several of hacktivism’s most highly publicized anti-censorship efforts have their origin with Oxblood Ruffin, the hacker handle of the human-rights activist who declines to disclose his real name. From the east side of Toronto, Ruffin has since 1999 presided over an international collective numbering approximately 30 programmers from five continents. His approach emphasizes its underground and grass-roots nature. Hacktivismo members are not paid for their work. They refer to one another by their hacker nicknames, or “handles,” rather than their given names, and Ruffin takes pains to perpetuate an air of mystery around his group. He prefers to conduct his interviews by e-mail or telephone.

Still, Ruffin is quick to differentiate his Hacktivismo group from the mischievous teens who deface Web sites or trigger denial of service attacks. “People who do Web site defacements, or (denial of service attacks) — I’m just completely annoyed by them,” he says. “I’m just interested in keeping the Internet open and free, specifically for the people living behind these national firewalls. I don’t want to overthrow the government of China, or whatever. It’s not my business to get into political revolution. My job is to allow the people in these countries access to better information — so they can make up their own minds.”

Ruffin is by most measures the most unlikely of hacktivists. For most people, the name “hacker” calls to mind an image of an acne-spotted computer programmer who uses his prodigious knowledge of the Internet to wreak mayhem. At 51, Ruffin is decades past youth, and likely twice the average age of most who refer to themselves as hackers. What’s more, Ruffin is not a computer programmer. In fact, he does not know how to write code, nor is he particularly technically minded. Ruffin acknowledges the strangeness of his position. “I joke with people — I tell them I’m not the Steve Wozniak of Hacktivism, I’m the Steve Jobs,” Ruffin cracks — an allusion to the two Steves who founded Apple Computer and created the Macintosh. Wozniak was the Mac’s technical whiz, Jobs the promoting and marketing genius who still leads Apple today.

Communicating via mass e-mailings, Ruffin’s geographically far-flung Hacktivismo members decided in 1999 to write a computer program that would allow citizens in countries where the Internet is censored to surf the entire range of the Internet. Peekabooty, the name Hacktivismo gave to its program, would allow Chinese computers to get around their national firewall because the program would act as an intermediary between the Internet and the Chinese Web surfer. Rather than trying to connect directly to a banned Internet address, a Chinese Web surfer could connect to a Peekabooty computer, which would, in turn, connect to the banned Internet address.

In basic terms, Peekabooty works according to a method similar to the one used by underage kids to get beer. Underage kids know they can’t get beer, so they ask someone else to get it for them — an older brother, say, or a taxi driver. Substitute “banned Web page” for “beer” and “underage kid” for “Chinese Web surfer” and you have what’s happening in China to the country’s 46 million Web surfers. Peekabooty is the older brother — the intermediary able to get the information and send it to the Chinese Web surfer.

Soon after the Hacktivismo group began, computer programmer Paul Baranowski emerged as the volunteer project manager. With Ruffin offering non-technical guidance, and volunteer programmers writing code, Baranowski worked on the program over 15 months. By the beginning of 2002, Peekabooty was ready for its developer’s release — a preliminary version of a program that someone with in-depth knowledge of computer programming can get to work.

But around the same time, the relationship between Ruffin and Baranowski broke down, and Baranowski left Ruffin’s Hacktivismo Project. “He wanted my job, basically,” says Ruffin. “Paul is, in my opinion, young and naive. He thinks he’s going to become famous, sort of like an Internet rock star, and get all kinds of props for writing Peekabooty. The main issue was that he made a lot of ridiculous demands of things that he was just not competent to do. And I said, ‘No, that won’t be happening,’ and he said, ‘OK, I gotta leave.’ And since he had rewritten the code base, I couldn’t prevent him from taking that. So he got all of our buzz.” Ruffin pauses. “And at the time, we thought, let’s not make any waves. Sure, we can’t stand this guy, he’s a jerk, but it’s still a good idea.”

Explaining that he prefers to concentrate on the aims of hacktivism rather than any intergroup rivalries, Baranowski declines to comment on the breakdown. He left Hacktivismo, he says, because Ruffin sent out press releases announcing progress on Peekabooty that hadn’t actually happened. A programmer familiar with both Hacktivismo and Peekabooty said the breakdown was caused in equal parts by Ruffin’s lack of technical knowledge and Baranowski’s lack of patience in dealing with junior programmers. “Ruffin is mostly a PR guy,” says the source. “So he can’t rate these people’s technical ability. He put together a group of random people with widely varying programming skills, and assigned jobs based on whether people wanted to help.” The makeup of the group made things very difficult for Baranowski, whose job it was to knit together the various pieces of code.

Baranowski’s exit almost ended Hacktivismo, Ruffin says. “It was a huge blow to the group because we had at that point only one project, and literally everyone was working on it.” Since regrouping, Hacktivismo has released a program called Camera/Shy that can hide messages within digital images, to be posted on the Internet and then unencrypted by the people for whom the message is intended. One budding project using the technology aims to make biblical passages available in Chinese. Hacktivismo is also working on something called Six/Four (taken from the date of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre) which is similar in spirit to Peekabooty, but could allow Chinese Internet users to send and receive encrypted e-mail and instant messages in addition to accessing the Web. “It’s like Peekabooty on steroids,” Ruffin promises. He expects a preliminary version of Six/Four to be released in several weeks, but admits that work would happen faster if he had money to pay programmers.

Funding may arrive soon for the hacktivists. A bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, of California, the chairman of the House of Representatives Policy Committee, would create an Office of Internet Freedom responsible for funding anti-censorship projects. Under the terms of the bill, the Office of Internet Freedom would get $100 million U.S. over two years to fund projects designed to aid democracy activists across the world — by penetrating the firewall of China, or slipping through the Web filtering of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “The idea of the office is to serve as a catalyst for companies or individuals who are working on solutions to get around the Chinese firewall,” said a Republican leadership aide familiar with the legislation.

But many hacktivists have serious misgivings about accepting money from the United States government. “There are many different points of view about that,” says Nart Villeneuve, who operates a Web site that tracks hacktivist projects (, and works for Citizen Lab. “There are people who are flat-out opposed to taking government money. And there are some people who, after some convincing, could be persuaded to take the money and run with it.”

On one hand is the Hacktivismo group. Ruffin says he would be inclined to reject funding from the U.S. government on principle, because of what he sees as hypocritical policies that fight censorship abroad but advocate it, in some circumstances, within the borders of the United States. For example, one of the most egregious instances of Net censorship, for hacktivists, is the policy of the U.S. government that makes federal funding of schools conditional on the presence of Web-filtering software on school library computers. Such filtering software prevents students from viewing pornography, but can also prevent the students from accessing sex education Web pages.

“I just don’t know if I want to be associated with money from the government,” Ruffin says. “They’ve said they want to set up this office,” he says, referring to the Office of Internet Freedom. “But how would they do it? Would it be open-source? Who would own it? What a lot of people don’t realize is that these governments (China, for example, or Saudi Arabia) aren’t developing this stuff on their own. They’re just going to, say, San Francisco and saying, ‘I need this firewall, I need that filtering software.’ So what Congress is proposing to do is to fund American and maybe North American firms to fight other North American firms. It’s kind of ironic.”

This irony is not lost on Amnesty International, which in late November issued a report criticizing Nortel Networks and U.S. companies including Sun Microsystems and Cisco for providing crucial technology for aiding Chinese censorship.

In his approach to soliciting funding, as in many other ways, Baranowski is Ruffin’s polar opposite. Baranowski uses his real name, for one, and is open in his dealings with the media — he conducted the interviews for this article from an armchair in his living room, just steps from Toronto’s Chinatown neighbourhood. Far from hesitant about government funding, he has lobbied the U.S. government for money to complete Peekabooty, which doesn’t yet exist in an easily usable form.

“All governments are made up of different people with different opinions,” Baranowski says, explaining why he’s willing to accept government funding. “The policy that comes out of them is often contradictory. We should take their money, fight this battle, and then if we disagree with other policies of theirs, we can fight them in other ways.” Asked whether the U.S. government would fund a project located in Canada, a Republican leadership aide familiar with the legislation said there wasn’t anything in the bill that would limit funding allocation to the United States. The aide said Baranowski’s program was “on the radar” of the United States government.

Somewhere between Ruffin’s underground Hacktivismo group and the Congress-enlisting tactics of Baranowski is the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which Prof. Deibert hopes to position as a liaison between aspiring hacktivists and government-sponsored pro-democracy groups. Deibert understands Ruffin’s point about government hypocrisy, but believes funding could come from other groups, such as non-governmental organizations like Canada’s International Development Research Centre, or the New York-based Ford Foundation, which already funds the Citizen Lab.

The Citizen Lab scored one of the movement’s best-publicized coups to date after China several months ago blocked access to Google, the largest Internet search engine. Lab member Nart Villeneuve responded by whipping up a page of programming that neatly allowed Chinese surfers to sidestep the block. Villeneuve’s mini-program allowed Chinese surfers to type their search terms at an unblocked site. The program would then shuttle the terms and the results back and forth from Google. “It really wasn’t a big deal,” says Villeneuve, a little embarrassed by the attention. China has since unblocked Google, but prevents the results of some searches from entering the country. For example, a search in China on Google for, say, “Falun Gong” would not return results.

Aside from Villeneuve’s Google hack, hacktivists have had little effect as yet on beating the firewall of China, or fighting the Net censorship of other countries. The movement’s “Holy Grail” — an easy-to-use censorship-busting program able to be operated by international democracy activists working behind national firewalls — does not yet exist. As it currently stands, Baranowski’s Peekabooty program is probably hacktivism’s best bet — but Baranowski needs funding to complete it. After his trip to Washington, Baranowski sounds hopeful that some funding will materialize in the next three months. He declines to provide details, other than to say that the money would come from “a government source.”

In the headquarters of the Citizen Lab, Nart Villeneuve attempts to provide a reporter with a real-world view of Net censorship. He completes a search for a Saudi Arabia open proxy — a computer that can provides surfers with Internet access through one of Saudi Arabia’s Internet service providers. After reconfiguring his browser to access the Web through the foreign computer, Villeneuve types in “” — the URL of New York-based Human Rights Watch, an activist organization that tracks oppressive governments across the world. Rather than the home page, Villeneuve’s computer displays a blank white rectangle with a message that explains, in English and Arabic, that the requested site is not available from Saudi Arabia. “See?” says Villeneuve, nodding at the monitor. “That’s what we’re fighting against.”

Christopher Shulgan is a Toronto writer. His e-mail is

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen

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Circumventing Censorship