Confirmed: 1984-style censorship in Sweden

published Jan 31, 2016, last modified Dec 28, 2021

Earlier today, reports of surgical censorship began to appear on Twitter. I have confirmed them personally.

Here is the down low:

  • Something in the network is surgically censoring certain information.
  • The censorship only has effect in Sweden.
  • The way the information is censored is undetectable to most people.
  • The information being suppressed is perfectly mainstream news.
  • It is not a crime nor is it wrong to communicate the suppressed information.
  • The suppressed content proves the blocks are politically motivated.

Before you go any further: the first one to whine about the Daily Mail gets thrown into the shame cube for being the imbecile who misses the point that what you're about to read could apply to any article of any non-SSL news site.

A few minutes ago, I read on Danger and Play that certain news articles -- not certain sites, certain news articles -- have begun to "disappear" from the perspective of the Swedish people.  Mike Cernovich talks about articles mysteriously "disappearing" from Web sites that ostensibly "carry" them from the standpoint of every other person in the world.

Naturally, I found that very hard to believe.  Fortunately, I know my way a bit around computers, and one of my VPNs happens to be in Sweden.  So what I did was attempt to confirm or deny the story.

It's true.

The proof

Here is a screenshot of a story in the Daily Mail, titled EXCLUSIVE - Swedish social worker was stabbed in the back and thigh as she tried to break up a fight between two teenage migrants: Police officer reveals shocking new details of the killing.  Note how it appears just fine through my regular Internet service:

Now here's a screenshot of a browser trying to display the same page, while routed through the Swedish Internet.

The Daily Mail censored

Interesting.  Why would I get an HTTP 302 redirect to the unavailable page of the Daily Mail in one window, but not in another?

The technical details

How this censorship is perpetrated is highly insidious.  This isn't a case of ISPs in Sweden blocking some DNS domains, or firewalling certain IP addresses,

The articles are censored in a way that makes people completely oblivious to the fact that it is going on.  Whenever you visit one of the censored URLs, your browser is automatically redirected to the Daily Mail 404 (unavailable) page,  So, for the victim reading the news days (or years) later, it looks as if the page had been either removed or never posted to the Web site.

The technique being used to block the site has two explanations:

  1. either the Daily Mail decided to (or was ordered to) block a a certain article from being loaded in Sweden,
  2. or Swedish ISPs decided to (or was ordered to) intercept HTTP requests for certain news articles, and ersatz their replies with HTTP 302 redirects.

There are important implications to both of those theories:

  1. If my second theory is true, then we can surmise that the attackers control Swedish ISPs or backbones, and we know that the Daily Mail can defeat this targeted suppression of information trivially, by implementing SSL traffic encryption on their Web site... which, honestly, should have been done years ago.
  2. However, if my first theory is correct, then there is every reason to believe that whatever power pulled off this censorship will continue to do so in the future, and quite likely expand that which is forbidden for the Swedes to know.

So how can we find out which one of these two theories is more probable?

We measure and compute, of course.  For that, we sample the response times — specifically, how long it takes to receive the first byte after the HTTP connection has been half-shutdown — of two pages: the censored page, and another page that is similar but uncensored.

If there's a middlebox in the Swedish ISP side (theory 1), we should see that HTTP 302 responses come back much faster than HTTP 200 responses, because a hypothetical middlebox will sit between the Swedes and upstream, and therefore may respond much faster than upstream.  If there is no middlebox (theory 2) we'd see comparable response times for HTTP 200 and HTTP 302.  Of course, no middlebox implies quite strongly that it's the Daily Mail itself doing the censoring.

Here are the 90th percentile samples I took, along with the mean and standard deviation.  200 OK in blue, 302 Redirect in green.

Guess what: the response times are almost exactly the same.  I am afraid that theory 1 is more likely — in other words, that the deceit about the existence of the article is happening on the side of the Daily Mail.

The implications of this censorship technique

It should be obvoius that victims of this sort of censorship would never be able to find out their computers are being played, if they didn't have advanced technical capabilities.  They would remain completely oblivious to the fact that their access to information is being perverted without their knowledge.

Let me put that in different words: if you got your news from the Daily Mail, and this same censorship technique was applied to you, you would never have found out that a social worker in Sweden was stabbed by one of the people in her workplace.  It's as if that event had never happened, having been retroactively erased from the collective memories of all.  If you can't find out about a newsworthy event, you can't form an informed opinion about the event, can you?

Let's take our example further: suppose a friend of you miraculously managed to get and read the link to the article -- upon clicking on the received link, you would feel perfectly justified in calling him an odious bullshitter for giving you a link "that doesn't work" (or so you have been misled to believe).  This censorship doesn't just render you more ignorant of the world around you -- it also manipulates you into being suspicious of people willing to tell you about it.

I hope you understand how much this sort of censorship serves to plant misinformation and distrust in everyone around you.

Okay, so this censorship deal is total bullshit.  Could it get worse?

The blockade is definitely political censorship

The answer is yes.  The censorship is most definitely politically motivated bullshit.  How do we know that?

First, remember that we know the Daily Mail itself hasn't been blocked in Sweden -- in other words, most of the Daily Mail remains normally accessible to Swedes.  But, it so happens that the censored article I documented isn't the only one being censored.  There are at least several more, and I'm going to link to them right now (sorry, Swedes, I love you, but you literally can't see this):

The common thread?  All of them are news reports of tragic / criminal events that involved refugees as.perpetrators.

Now, I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but this topic is highly contentious in Europe at the moment.  I won't say very much about the subject itself, except to say that I know very little and I'm therefore not informed about the subject to make a comment.  But there's one thing I definitely know and, while it pains me, I'll say it anyway:

This censorship is an epistemic attack on millions of people that can't possibly be explained as an inadvertent mistake.  Whoever ordered or worked to selectively block these news stories, and only these news stories, clearly doesn't want the Swedish people to know about certain events.  So much so, that they actually managed to secretly influence either ISPs or news media in order to suppress the news.  That requires quite a lot of power to pull off, aside from a perverse contempt for the Swedes' ability to reason about news reports.

No principled argument or sensible circumstance can justify this manipulation of millions of people.  That manipulation was wrong when China suppressed knowledge of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it was wrong when the media oligopolies tried to delete the HD-DVD number from the Internet, and it continues to be wrong when done today.  There is nothing sacred, taboo, evil or privileged about news reports of violence in Sweden that invalidates the people's right to tell those stories -- or, as it is the case now, the people's right to learn about them and to use their own judgments.

The people's right to know trumps the censors' thirst to deceive.