Free Speech Case Study - The Demise of

It's easy to think especially given the recent unrest in Egypt, Libya, Iran and Bahrain etc. that the very simplistic ways of censoring and controlling the internet are the only methods available to a government.   When we watch the rather ineffective tactics of Mubarak's regime - first censoring the social networking sites, then getting everyone even more determined by switching off the country's internet and mobile phone infrastructure - you'd be tempted to think that there were limited tactics available.

Of course in reality there are many more options and in fact many more factions involved in the ongoing cyber war taking place online.  The tactics taken in Egypt were the last roll of the dice for the Mubarak regime, the impetus was already there, the internet by this stage was simply just another communication medium for organising the protests, but was by no means essential as we saw.  The same appears to be happening in Libya even as I write this, the switch has been pulled on the Internet three days ago yet the protests are still gaining momentum.

We know that the filtering and blocking tactics are becoming increasingly ineffective, the tools like Identity Cloaker are well known to most young people even if they just use it to access things like BBC Iplayer or Hulu rather than bypassing Government censorship.  But unfortunately there are other methods available to block ideas, or remove access to virtual meeting places - tactics that I fear will become increasingly familiar.

Tomaar a Place for Saudi Arabians to Discuss Ideas

Let's take for example the site Tomaar.Net,  an Arabic discussion forum set up by some Saudi Arabians who had been educated in the West.   It was a lively and interesting forum which covered lots of different areas from Philosophy, politics, economics and current affairs - all the sort of stuff that the rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would rather you didn't discuss.

The Tomaar Discussion Forum
The site ended up being incredibly popular, not just with Saudis but other Arabic speakers from across the world.   The Saudi Government however took their usual stance on anything that has the potential to conflict with their rule or strict religious beliefs and blocked it from all the ISPs in Saudi Arabia.

However as we have already seen, the sort of people using Tomaar were sophisticated web users - who all had access to circumvention tools to bypass the governments ban.  Of course lots of the users were Saudis living in other countries which actually allowed free speech so they weren't subjected to this block in any case.

Of course you'd imagine that a discussion forum about Saudi Arabia hosted with an American provider was free from any interference from the aforementioned regime.  Well let's just finish the story of Tomaar and you can make up your own mind.

The forum thrived, but shortly after the Saudi Internet blockade something strange happened - the guys who set up and ran the forum received a letter from their hosting providers terminating their contract.  They moved the site to different hosts but it kept falling over and being unavailable.

So what was happening to Tomaar?

Well shortly after the Saudi Arabia instigated their internet blockade on the site, it started being the subject of DDOS attacks.  DDOS stands for Distributed Denial of Service - and is basically when lots of computers (also called botnets) target a specific website making repeated requests to deliberately overwhelm it's resources.   The key is the word distributed because these computers are all infected and controlled computers all across the internet.  They are simply instructed to simultaneously request web pages over and over again until the server cannot cope.

The simple fact is that this is very easy to achieve, the average hosting account is not able to cope with more than a few concurrent connections at a time and even a small network of attacking computers will quickly overwhelm the server.   Also the hosting providers simply don't want the hassle and expense of defending against these sort of attacks which are extremely costly and will affect their other customers as well.

This was how Tomaar died, regularly attacked by botnet networks, they didn't have the resources to defend against - the site gradually faded away, now you can only see a skeleton of it's once lively content and discussion on the Wayback machine which caches copies of old websites.

 There's no direct proof that the Saudi Government were behind this, in reality it's quite a simple an inexpensive process to bring down a smallish website like Tomaar - the timing is perhaps just coincidental.  It should be pointed out that you can buy DDOS attacks from pretty big networks for a few hundred dollars from sites without even having to set up anything yourself.  The worrying thing is that it is so trivially easy to shut down a site you don't like, when Tomaar upset Saudi Arabia even being hosted in the land of free speech - I'm afraid it's days were numbered.