The State of Internet Censorship in Malaysia
Block page in Malaysia
A research study by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Sinar Project.
Table of contents
Probed ISPs: TM Net (AS4788), TM-VADS DC Hosting (AS17971)
Censorship method: DNS injection (block pages)
OONI tests: Web Connectivity, Vanilla Tor, HTTP invalid request line, HTTP header field manipulation, Meek Fronted Requests test
New OONI data published in this report reveals that 39 different websites were blocked in Malaysia by ISPs through the DNS injection of block pages. These sites include:
News outlets, blogs and medium.com for covering the 1MDB scandal.
A site that expresses heavy criticism towards Islam.
Popular torrenting sites (such as thepiratebay.org).
A popular online dating site.
While the blocking of some sites (such as pornography and online gambling) can be legally justified under Malaysia’s laws and regulations, the blocking of sites covering the 1MDB scandal illustrates that such censorship was politically motivated.
On a positive note, some previously blocked sites (Bersih rally websites) were found to be accessible when tested between September to November 2016. No signs of censorship were detected when examining the accessibility of social media, censorship circumvention tools and LGBTI websites in the country during the testing period.
View the data collected as part of this study:
Malaysia is a Federal Constitutional Elective country with Westminster Parliamentary System. Malaysia has a population of around 30.9 million.pdf), with broadband penetration 72.2% for households and 91.7% for individual users, while the figures surpass the population figures for access to the internet on mobile phones. More than 80 percent of Internet users live in urban areas, and penetration remains low in less populated states in East Malaysia.
Malaysia’s constitution provides citizens with “the right to freedom of speech and expression,” and MSC Malaysia has guaranteed in the Bill of Guarantees No.71 that it will ensure there is no censorship on the internet. However, as of November 2015, 37 incidents have occurred involving the investigation, arrest, charge and/or punishment of individuals under the Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) documented by SUARAM. Various websites have also been blocked over the last year, especially following the 1MDB scandal and subsequent retaliation against sites covering the scandal.
In light of recent censorship events in Malaysia, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), in collaboration with Sinar Project, conducted a study to examine whether internet censorship events were persisting in the country and, if so, to collect data that can serve as evidence of them. This study was carried out through the collection of network measurements from two local vantage points in Malaysia, based on OONI software tests designed to examine whether a set of websites were blocked, and whether systems that could be responsible for internet censorship and surveillance were present in the tested networks (AS4788 and AS17971).
The aim of this study is to increase transparency about internet controls in Malaysia and to collect data that can potentially corroborate rumours and reports of internet censorship events. The following sections of this report provide information about Malaysia’s legal environment with respect to freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy, as well as about cases of censorship and surveillance that have previously been reported in the country. The remainder of the report documents the methodology and key findings of this study.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country with a population of around 30 million as of 2016, situated in the middle of Southeast Asia. Geographically, Malaysia consists of two parts: Peninsular Malaysia bordering with Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south, and East Malaysia on the northern part of the island of Borneo bordering with Indonesia in the south.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy, consisting of 13 states and 3 federal territories. Malaysia is also multiracial, consisting of Bumiputras and Muslim Malays that make up the majority (50.1%) of the population. Bumiputera status is also accorded to certain non-Malay indigenous people of East Malaysia. 22.6% of Malaysia’s population is Chinese, while 6.7% is Indian. Ethnicity plays a major role in Malaysia, as there are a number of rights and privileges accorded to bumiputeras due to racial economic policies in place in Malaysia.
Statistics from the 2010 census show a religious makeup of the population at 61% Muslims, 19.8% Buddhist, 9.3% Christians and 6.3% Hindu. Religious beliefs mostly follow ethnic lines. Article 11 of the Constitution.pdf) provides for freedom of religion, but it restricts propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims. All Malays however are Muslim by law, and apostasy is not legally allowed. Islam is a state religion, and state governments can impose Islamic law on Muslims. The government only accepts Sunni Islamic beliefs and any other Islamic beliefs, such as Shia, are not recognized and considered as deviant. The Government restricts the distribution in peninsular Malaysia of Malay-language translations of the Bible, Christian tapes, and other printed materials.
Politically Malaysia has been governed by single coalition government at the federal level by the Barisan Nasional (National Front) since independence in 1957. The National Front is made up of several race based parties dominated by the Malay ethnic party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The Barisan Nasional Coalition has been in power in all the state governments since independence, with a few brief periods where it lost in Eastern States of Kelantan and Sabah. This has resulted in a government and population that often does not differentiate between the roles of the elected executive and government. In 2008 however the political landscape changed when the opposition parties won elections in two of the largest states by economy in Penang and Selangor. Over a third of the federal parliamentary seats were also won by the opposition in this election. In the last elections in 2013, the opposition gained more seats in both federal and states, while winning the popular vote. This has resulted in a current parliament that has demanded more accountability from the executive.
Economically Malaysia has been one of the fastest developing countries in Asia for the past few decades with a GDP growing on average 6.5 per cent annually from 1957 to 2005. Malaysia is a highly open and competitive, upper-middle income economy.
In relation to its ASEAN neighbours, with the exception of Singapore, Malaysia ranks much higher when it comes to the measurement of corruption. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Malaysia ranked 50th in 2015. On 2nd July 2015, the Wall Street Journal released a bombshell by disclosing documents that showed that USD 680 million was transferred to the personal accounts of the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak possibly from the 1MDB state-owned investment company. Eventual leaks and stories over the course of several months finally led to a detailed public US Department of Justice Kleptocracy department case which traced how public money totalling USD 3.5 billion was stolen from the Malaysian citizen.
The implications of 1MDB for governance are far reaching in Malaysia. It led to the dismissal of the Attorney General and transfers of senior investigating staff of MACC. The Auditor General report from PAC investigation on 1MDB was also classified under the Official Secrets Act. During the October-November 2016 parliamentary sessions, discussions on 1MDB and the Department of Justice case have been censored. Despite parliamentary privilege, MPs discussing 1MDB are called up by police for sharing information on it.
Network landscape and internet penetration
All internet and mobile services providers in Malaysia are privately-owned. Overall, Malaysia has 10 different Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with 4 major mobile operators: DiGi, Maxis, Celcom and Umobile.
|Mobile Operators/ISPs||Fixed Internet||Mobile Internet|
|Packet One Networks (P1)||X|
|Telekom Malaysia (TMnet)||X|
Internet penetration in Malaysia is currently 72.2% for households and 91.7% for individual users, while the figures surpass the population figures for access to the internet on mobile phones. More than 80% of internet users live in urban areas, and penetration remains low in less populated states in East Malaysia.
Indicators and internet penetration rates per 100 inhabitants and households from 2011 to 2016 are illustrated below.
|Year||Population (Million)||Households (‘000)||Broadband||Cellular Phone||Direct Exchange Line|
|Per 100 Inhabitants||Per 100 Households||Per 100 Households||Per 100 Inhabitants|
Malaysia’s constitution and Bill of Guarantees provides citizens with “the right to freedom of speech and expression,” but allows for limitations to this right. The government exercises tight control over online media, print, and broadcast media through laws like the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act. Under Section 211 of the Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA), Malaysian authorities can ban content deemed “indecent, obscene, false, threatening, or offensive,” and the same, under Section 233 of the CMA, applies to such content shared over the internet.
In 2012, Malaysia’s parliament passed an amendment%20(no.%202).pdf) to the 1950 Evidence Act that holds intermediaries liable for seditious content posted anonymously on their networks or websites. This would include hosts of online forums, news outlets, and blogging services, as well as businesses providing Wi-Fi services. The amendment also holds someone liable if their name is attributed to the content or if the computer it was sent from belongs to them, whether or not they were the author. In 2015 the parliament passed an amendment to the Sedition Act that added a new section which empowers the court to issue an order to an authorised officer under the Communications and Multimedia Act to prevent access to such publications if the perpetrator is not identified.
Freedom of expression
Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.pdf). In practice, however, this right can be limited by the vague interpretations of laws that restrict expression in the interest of national security, safety and public order.
Sedition Act 1948
Malaysia’s Sedition Act can potentially be used to restrict freedom of expression online. Sections 3(1) and 4(1) of the Act can be used against any form of statement that contents seditious tendency - to bring hatred, or to excite disaffection against any Ruler and Government; to promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Malaysia; to question any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty.
Communication & Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998
Section 211 of the CMA bans content deemed “indecent, obscene, false, threatening, or offensive,” and, under Section 233, the same applies to content shared over the internet.
Evidence Act 1950
Amendments%20(no.%202).pdf) to Malaysia’s Evidence Act hold intermediaries liable for seditious content posted anonymously on their networks or websites. This includes hosts of online forums, news outlets, and blogging services, as well as businesses providing Wi-Fi services. The amendment also holds someone liable if their name is attributed to the content or if the computer it was sent from belongs to them, whether or not they were the author.
Printing, Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984
The amendment.pdf) of PPPA in 2012 expanded its scope and includes ‘publications’ (anything which by its form, shape or in any manner is capable of suggesting words or ideas) posted online and plug loopholes.
Access to information
Official Secrets Act (OSA) 1972
Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act is a broadly-worded law which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for actions associated with the wrongful collection, possession or communication of official information. Any public officer can declare any material an official secret: a certification which cannot be questioned in court. The act allows for arrest and detention without a warrant, and substantially reverses the burden of proof. It states that “until the contrary is proven,” any of the activities proscribed under the Act will be presumed to have been undertaken “for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of Malaysia.”
Personal Data Protection Act 2010
Malaysia’s Personal Data Protection Act protects any personal data collected in Malaysia from being misused. According to the Act, one must obtain the consent of data subjects before collecting their personal data or sharing it with third parties. In order for their consent to be valid, data collectors must provide data subjects with a written notice of the purpose for the data collection, their rights to request or correct their data, what class of third parties will have access to their data, and whether or not they are required to share their data, and the consequences if they don’t.
Censorship and surveillance
Communications & Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998
Section 211 of the CMA bans content deemed “indecent, obscene, false, threatening, or offensive,” and, under Section 233, the same applies to content shared over the internet.
Prevention of Crime Act (PoCA) 1959
The amendment of PoCA allows for detention without trial for a period of two years. This order can be extended to another two years by the Board. A supervision order allows for a registered person to be attached with an electronic monitoring device and imposes conditions such as restriction on internet use or meeting with other registered persons.
Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) 2012
SOSMA%20Act%202012.pdf) has replaced the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, which allowed for infinitely renewable detentions without trial. SOSMA authorizes phone-tapping and communications powers to the government, as well as an electronic anklet to track the freed detainees of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PoTA). More recently, SOSMA has been used to raid the offices of human rights defenders.
Prevention of Terrorism Act (PoTA) 2015
PoTA.pdf) enables the Malaysian authorities to detain terror suspects without trial for a period of two years, without judicial reviews of detentions. Instead, detentions will be reviewed by a special Prevention of Terrorism Board. Suspected militants will be fitted with electronic monitoring devices (EMD or electronic anklets) upon their release from detention.
Previous cases of internet censorship and surveillance
In 2013, Citizen Lab research found evidence of a FinFisher server running in Malaysia, and later found evidence of Finfisher software embedded in an election related document. The Malaysian government neither confirmed nor denied the use of Finfisher.
Hacking Team Surveillance Software
Leaked Hacking Team emails in 2015 revealed that at least three government agencies, including the Prime Minister’s department, bought Hacking Team’s Remote Control System (RCS): spyware designed to evade encryption and to remotely collect information from a target’s computer. The same emails, however, also revealed that the procuring agencies seemed to lack the technical capacity to use the software.
Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to timeout HTTP requests
Before the 2013 general elections, users were reporting that some Youtube videos with politically sensitive content were not viewable. Sinar Project and other researchers independently found that unencrypted HTTP requests on two ISPs (Maxis and TMNet) that matched some URL strings were timing out. Several other URLs with political content were also found to be affected by a similar block by running a test that would split the HTTP headers into smaller packets. As it was only affecting two ISPs and there does not seem to be any specific pattern to the urls being blocked, it was not conclusive that this was sanctioned by any government agency.
This same method of censorship was repeated on 16th February 2016, when users in Malaysia reported that a BBC article covering an embarrassing meme of a quote from then Prime Minister Najib Razak was blocked. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) however denied any government involvement.
News outlets blocked
Access to the Sarawak Report website has been blocked by the Malaysian Communications And Multimedia Commission (MCMC) since July 2015 on the grounds that it may undermine the stability of the country, as announced on the MCMC’s official Facebook page. This marks the first official confirmation of blocking of political websites in Malaysia.
The Malaysian government has blocked at least ten websites, including online news portals (Sarawak Report, Malaysia Chronicle, The Malaysian Insider, Asia Sentinel, Medium) and private blogs, for reporting about the scandal surrounding Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak over his mysterious private dealings with RM2.6 billions.
The suspension of the publishing permit of the Edge Weekly and the Edge Financial Daily for three months over the reports on 1MDB and the arrests of Lionel Morais, Amin Iskandar, Zulkifli Sulong, Ho Kay Tat and Jahabar Sadiq were blatant punishment and harassment of the mass media and journalists by the Malaysian government.
Last year, Malaysiakini’s office was raided over the report that a deputy public prosecutor was transferred out of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) special operations division. On the same day, the Royal Malaysian Police, aided by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), also visited The Star headquarters over a similar report.
Blocking of websites promoting Bersih 4
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked four websites for spreading information on Bersih in August 2015. These websites include http://bersih.org, http://globalbersih.org, http://www.bersih.org and http://www.globalbersih.org. This marked the second confirmation of directive to censor political websites after Sarawak Report. After the Bersih 4 protests on 29th and 30th August, the blocking of these sites was lifted soon thereafter.
Official announcements of blocked sites by MCMC
Over the last year, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has officially announced the blocking of numerous sites. These include sites involved in the propagation of the Islamic State (IS) ideology in the Malay language, more than 1,000 porn websites, and hundreds of online gambling sites.
Examining internet censorship in Malaysia
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), in collaboration with Sinar Project, performed a study of internet censorship in Malaysia. The aim of this study was to understand whether and to what extent censorship events occurred in Malaysia during the testing period (between September to November 2016).
The sections below document the methodology and key findings of this study.
The methodology of this study, in an attempt to identify potential internet censorship events in Malaysia, included the following:
Creation of a Malaysian test list
OONI network measurements
A list of URLs that are relevant and commonly accessed in Malaysia was created, and such URLs - along with other URLs that are commonly accessed around the world - were tested for blocking based on OONI’s free software tests. Such tests were run from two local vantage points in Malaysia (AS4788 and AS17971), and they also examined whether systems that are responsible for censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation were present in the tested network. Once network measurement data was collected from these tests, the data was subsequently processed and analyzed based on a set of heuristics for detecting internet censorship and traffic manipulation.
The analysis period started on 24th September 2016 and concluded on 13th November 2016.
Creation of a Malaysian test list
An important part of identifying censorship is determining which websites to examine for blocking.
OONI’s software (called ooniprobe) is designed to examine URLs contained in specific lists (“test lists”) for censorship. By default, ooniprobe examines the “global test list”, which includes a wide range of internationally relevant websites, most of which are in English. These websites fall under 30 categories, ranging from news media, file sharing and culture, to provocative or objectionable categories, like pornography, political criticism, and hate speech.
These categories help ensure that a wide range of different types of websites are tested, and they enable the examination of the impact of censorship events (for example, if the majority of the websites found to be blocked in a country fall under the “human rights” category, that may have a bigger impact than other types of websites being blocked elsewhere). The main reason why objectionable categories (such as “pornography” and “hate speech”) are included for testing is because they are more likely to be blocked due to their nature, enabling the development of heuristics for detecting censorship elsewhere within a country.
In addition to testing the URLs included in the global test list, ooniprobe is also designed to examine a test list which is specifically created for the country that the user is running ooniprobe from, if such a list exists. Unlike the global test list, country-specific test lists include websites that are relevant and commonly accessed within specific countries, and such websites are often in local languages. Similarly to the global test list, country-specific test lists include websites that fall under the same set of 30 categories, as explained previously.
All test lists are hosted by the Citizen Lab on GitHub, supporting OONI and other network measurement projects in the creation and maintenance of lists of URLs to test for censorship. Some criteria for adding URLs to test lists include the following:
The URLs cover topics of socio-political interest within the country.
The URLs are likely to be blocked because they include sensitive content (i.e. they touch upon sensitive issues or express political criticism).
The URLs have been blocked in the past.
Users have faced difficulty connecting to those URLs.
The above criteria indicate that such URLs are more likely to be blocked, enabling the development of heuristics for detecting censorship within a country. Furthermore, other criteria for adding URLs are reflected in the 30 categories that URLs can fall under. Such categories, for example, can include file-sharing, human rights, and news media, under which the websites of file-sharing projects, human rights NGOs and media organizations can be added.
As part of this study, OONI and Sinar Project reviewed the Citizen Lab’s test list for Malaysia by adding more URLs to be tested for censorship. The recently added URLs are specific to the Malaysian context and fall under the following categories: human rights issues, political criticism, LGBTI, public health, religion, social networking, and culture. Overall, 400 different URLs that are relevant to Malaysia were tested as part of this study. In addition, the URLs included in the Citizen Lab’s global list (including 1,218 different URLs) were also tested. As such, a total of 1,618 different URLs were tested for censorship in Malaysia as part of this research.
A core limitation to the study is the bias in terms of the URLs that were selected for testing. The URL selection criteria included the following:
Websites that were more likely to be blocked, because their content expressed political criticism.
Websites of organizations that were known to have previously been blocked and were thus likely to be blocked again.
Websites reporting on human rights restrictions and violations.
The above criteria reflect bias in terms of which URLs were selected for testing, as one of the core aims of this study was to examine whether and to what extent websites reflecting criticism were blocked, limiting open dialogue and and access to information across the country. As a result of this bias, it is important to acknowledge that the findings of this study are only limited to the websites that were tested, and do not necessarily provide a complete view of other censorship events that may have occurred during the testing period.
OONI network measurements
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) is a free software project that aims to increase transparency about internet censorship and traffic manipulation around the world. Since 2011, OONI has developed multiple free and open source software tests designed to examine the following:
Blocking of websites.
Detection of systems responsible for censorship and traffic manipulation.
Reachability of circumvention tools (such as Tor, Psiphon, and Lantern) and sensitive domains.
As part of this study, the following OONI software tests were run from two local vantage points (AS4788 and AS17971) in Malaysia:
The web connectivity test was run with the aim of examining whether a set of URLs (included in both the “global test list”, and the recently updated “Malaysian test list”) were blocked during the testing period and if so, how. The Vanilla Tor test was run to examine the reachability of the Tor network, while the Meek Fronted Requests test was run to examine whether the domains used by Meek (a type of Tor bridge) work in tested networks.
The HTTP invalid request line and HTTP header field manipulation tests were run with the aim of examining whether “middle boxes” (systems placed in the network between the user and a control server) that could potentially be responsible for censorship and/or surveillance were present in the tested network.
The sections below document how each of these tests are designed for the purpose of detecting cases of internet censorship and traffic manipulation.
This test examines whether websites are reachable and if they are not, it attempts to determine whether access to them is blocked through DNS tampering, TCP connection RST/IP blocking or by a transparent HTTP proxy. Specifically, this test is designed to perform the following:
HTTP GET request
By default, this test performs the above (excluding the first step, which is performed only over the network of the user) both over a control server and over the network of the user. If the results from both networks match, then there is no clear sign of network interference; but if the results are different, the websites that the user is testing are likely censored.
Further information is provided below, explaining how each step performed under the web connectivity test works.
1. Resolver identification
The domain name system (DNS) is what is responsible for transforming a host name (e.g. torproject.org) into an IP address (e.g. 22.214.171.124). Internet Service Providers (ISPs), amongst others, run DNS resolvers which map IP addresses to hostnames. In some circumstances though, ISPs map the requested host names to the wrong IP addresses, which is a form of tampering.
As a first step, the web connectivity test attempts to identify which DNS resolver is being used by the user. It does so by performing a DNS query to special domains (such as whoami.akamai.com) which will disclose the IP address of the resolver.
2. DNS lookup
Once the web connectivity test has identified the DNS resolver of the user, it then attempts to identify which addresses are mapped to the tested host names by the resolver. It does so by performing a DNS lookup, which asks the resolver to disclose which IP addresses are mapped to the tested host names, as well as which other host names are linked to the tested host names under DNS queries.
3. TCP connect
The web connectivity test will then try to connect to the tested websites by attempting to establish a TCP session on port 80 (or port 443 for URLs that begin with HTTPS) for the list of IP addresses that were identified in the previous step (DNS lookup).
4. HTTP GET request
As the web connectivity test connects to tested websites (through the previous step), it sends requests through the HTTP protocol to the servers which are hosting those websites. A server normally responds to an HTTP GET request with the content of the webpage that is requested.
Comparison of results: Identifying censorship
Once the above steps of the web connectivity test are performed both over a control server and over the network of the user, the collected results are then compared with the aim of identifying whether and how tested websites are tampered with. If the compared results do not match, then there is a sign of network interference.
Below are the conditions under which the following types of blocking are identified:
DNS blocking: If the DNS responses (such as the IP addresses mapped to host names) do not match.
TCP/IP blocking: If a TCP session to connect to websites was not established over the network of the user.
HTTP blocking: If the HTTP request over the user’s network failed, or the HTTP status codes don’t match, or all of the following apply:
The body length of compared websites (over the control server and the network of the user) differs by some percentage
The HTTP headers names do not match
The HTML title tags do not match
It’s important to note, however, that DNS resolvers, such as Google or a local ISP, often provide users with IP addresses that are closest to them geographically. Often this is not done with the intent of network tampering, but merely for the purpose of providing users with localized content or faster access to websites. As a result, some false positives might arise in OONI measurements. Other false positives might occur when tested websites serve different content depending on the country that the user is connecting from, or in the cases when websites return failures even though they are not tampered with.
HTTP invalid request line
This test tries to detect the presence of network components (“middle box”) which could be responsible for censorship and/or traffic manipulation.
Instead of sending a normal HTTP request, this test sends an invalid HTTP request line - containing an invalid HTTP version number, an invalid field count and a huge request method – to an echo service listening on the standard HTTP port. An echo service is a very useful debugging and measurement tool, which simply sends back to the originating source any data it receives. If a middle box is not present in the network between the user and an echo service, then the echo service will send the invalid HTTP request line back to the user, exactly as it received it. In such cases, there is no visible traffic manipulation in the tested network.
If, however, a middle box is present in the tested network, the invalid HTTP request line will be intercepted by the middle box and this may trigger an error and that will subsequently be sent back to OONI’s server. Such errors indicate that software for traffic manipulation is likely placed in the tested network, though it’s not always clear what that software is. In some cases though, censorship and/or surveillance vendors can be identified through the error messages in the received HTTP response. Based on this technique, OONI has previously detected the use of BlueCoat, Squid and Privoxy proxy technologies in networks across multiple countries around the world.
It’s important though to note that a false negative could potentially occur in the hypothetical instance that ISPs are using highly sophisticated censorship and/or surveillance software that is specifically designed to not trigger errors when receiving invalid HTTP request lines like the ones of this test. Furthermore, the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative of traffic manipulation, as they are often used in networks for caching purposes.
HTTP header field manipulation
This test also tries to detect the presence of network components (“middle box”) which could be responsible for censorship and/or traffic manipulation.
HTTP is a protocol which transfers or exchanges data across the internet. It does so by handling a client’s request to connect to a server, and a server’s response to a client’s request. Every time a user connects to a server, the user (client) sends a request through the HTTP protocol to that server. Such requests include “HTTP headers”, which transmit various types of information, including the user’s device operating system and the type of browser that is being used. If Firefox is used on Windows, for example, the “user agent header” in the HTTP request will tell the server that a Firefox browser is being used on a Windows operating system.
This test emulates an HTTP request towards a server, but sends HTTP headers that have variations in capitalization. In other words, this test sends HTTP requests which include valid, but non-canonical HTTP headers. Such requests are sent to a backend control server which sends back any data it receives. If OONI receives the HTTP headers exactly as they were sent, then there is no visible presence of a “middle box” in the network that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance and/or traffic manipulation. If, however, such software is present in the tested network, it will likely normalize the invalid headers that are sent or add extra headers.
Depending on whether the HTTP headers that are sent and received from a backend control server are the same or not, OONI is able to evaluate whether software – which could be responsible for traffic manipulation – is present in the tested network.
False negatives, however, could potentially occur in the hypothetical instance that ISPs are using highly sophisticated software that is specifically designed to not interfere with HTTP headers when it receives them. Furthermore, the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative of traffic manipulation, as they are often used in networks for caching purposes.
The Vanilla Tor test attempts to start a connection to the Tor network. If the test successfully bootstraps a connection within a predefined amount of seconds (300 by default), then Tor is considered to be reachable from the vantage point of the user. But if the test does not manage to establish a connection, then the Tor network is likely blocked within the tested network.
Meek Fronted Requests
This test examines whether the domains used by Meek (a type of Tor bridge) work in tested networks.
Meek is a pluggable transport which uses non-blocked domains, such as google.com, awsstatic.com (Amazon cloud infrastructure), and ajax.aspnetcdn.com (Microsoft azure cloud infrastructure) to proxy its users over Tor to blocked websites, while hiding both the fact that they are connecting to such websites and how they are connecting to them. As such, Meek is useful for not only connecting to websites that are blocked, but for also hiding which websites you are connecting to.
Below is a simplified explanation of how this works:
[user] → [https://www.google.com] → [Meek hosted on the cloud] → [Tor] → [blocked-website]
The user will receive a response (access to a blocked website, for example) from cloud-fronted domains, such as google.com, through the following way:
[blocked-website] → [Tor] → [Meek hosted on the cloud] → [https://www.google.com] → [user]
In short, this test does an encrypted connection to cloud-fronted domains over HTTPS and examines whether it can connect to them or not. As such, this test enables users to check whether Meek enables the circumvention of censorship in an automated way.
Through its data pipeline, OONI processes all network measurements that it collects, including the following types of data:
OONI by default collects the code which corresponds to the country from which the user is running ooniprobe tests from, by automatically searching for it based on the user’s IP address through the MaxMind GeoIP database. The collection of country codes is an important part of OONI’s research, as it enables OONI to map out global network measurements and to identify where network interferences take place.
Autonomous System Number (ASN)
OONI by default collects the Autonomous System Number (ASN) which corresponds to the network that a user is running ooniprobe tests from. The collection of the ASN is useful to OONI’s research because it reveals the specific network provider (such as Vodafone) of a user. Such information can increase transparency in regards to which network providers are implementing censorship or other forms of network interference.
Date and time of measurements
OONI by default collects the time and date of when tests were run. This information helps OONI evaluate when network interferences occur and to compare them across time.
IP addresses and other information
OONI does not deliberately collect or store users’ IP addresses. In fact, OONI takes measures to remove users’ IP addresses from the collected measurements, to protect its users from potential risks.
However, OONI might unintentionally collect users’ IP addresses and other potentially personally-identifiable information, if such information is included in the HTTP headers or other metadata of measurements. This, for example, can occur if the tested websites include tracking technologies or custom content based on a user’s network location.
The types of network measurements that OONI collects depend on the types of tests that are run. Specifications about each OONI test can be viewed through its git repository, and details about what collected network measurements entail can be viewed through OONI Explorer or through OONI’s public list of measurements.
OONI processes the above types of data with the aim of deriving meaning from the collected measurements and, specifically, in an attempt to answer the following types of questions:
Which types of OONI tests were run?
In which countries were those tests run?
In which networks were those tests run?
When were tests run?
What types of network interference occurred?
In which countries did network interference occur?
In which networks did network interference occur?
When did network interference occur?
How did network interference occur?
To answer such questions, OONI’s pipeline is designed to process data which is automatically sent to OONI’s measurement collector by default. The initial processing of network measurements enables the following:
Attributing measurements to a specific country.
Attributing measurements to a specific network within a country.
Distinguishing measurements based on the specific tests that were run for their collection.
Distinguishing between “normal” and “anomalous” measurements (the latter indicating that a form of network tampering is likely present).
Identifying the type of network interference based on a set of heuristics for DNS tampering, TCP/IP blocking, and HTTP blocking.
Identifying block pages based on a set of heuristics for HTTP blocking.
Identifying the presence of “middle boxes” (such as Blue Coat) within tested networks.
However, false positives and false negatives emerge within the processed data due to a number of reasons. As explained previously (section on “OONI network measurements”), DNS resolvers (operated by Google or a local ISP) often provide users with IP addresses that are closest to them geographically. While this may appear to be a case of DNS tampering, it is actually done with the intention of providing users with faster access to websites. Similarly, false positives may emerge when tested websites serve different content depending on the country that the user is connecting from, or in the cases when websites return failures even though they are not tampered with.
Furthermore, measurements indicating HTTP or TCP/IP blocking might actually be due to temporary HTTP or TCP/IP failures, and may not conclusively be a sign of network interference. It is therefore important to test the same sets of websites across time and to cross-correlate data, prior to reaching a conclusion on whether websites are in fact being blocked.
Since block pages differ from country to country and sometimes even from network to network, it is quite challenging to accurately identify them. OONI uses a series of heuristics to try to guess if the page in question differs from the expected control, but these heuristics can often result in false positives. For this reason OONI only says that there is a confirmed instance of blocking when a block page is detected.
OONI’s methodology for detecting the presence of “middle boxes” - systems that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation - can also present false negatives, if ISPs are using highly sophisticated software that is specifically designed to not interfere with HTTP headers when it receives them, or to not trigger error messages when receiving invalid HTTP request lines. It remains unclear though if such software is being used. Moreover, it’s important to note that the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative of censorship or traffic manipulation, as such systems are often used in networks for caching purposes.
Upon collection of more network measurements, OONI continues to develop its data analysis heuristics, based on which it attempts to accurately identify censorship events.
As part of this study, hundreds of thousands of network measurements from two local vantage points (AS4788 and AS17971) in Malaysia collected between 24th September 2016 and 13th November 2016 were analyzed.
Upon analysis of the collected data, the findings illustrate that 39 different websites were blocked based on DNS injections of block pages during the testing period. These sites fall under the following categories: news media, political criticism, file-sharing, hosting and blogging platforms, online dating, religion, pornography, and gambling.
The table below includes all of the websites that were found to be blocked based on DNS injections of block pages.
|Blocked websites||Categories||First measured||First blocked||Last blocked||Last measured|
||Online Dating||2016-09-24 3:55:08||2016-09-24 3:55:08||2016-11-13 22:39:44||2016-11-13 22:39:44|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 3:55:26||2016-09-24 3:55:26||2016-11-13 22:39:53||2016-11-13 22:39:53|
||File-sharing||2016-11-10 0:02:37||2016-11-10 0:03:42||2016-11-13 0:03:34||2016-11-13 0:03:34|
||Political Criticism||2016-11-10 1:11:18||2016-11-10 1:11:18||2016-11-13 1:18:17||2016-11-13 1:18:17|
||Political Criticism||2016-09-24 3:32:58||2016-09-24 3:32:58||2016-11-13 22:26:26||2016-11-13 22:26:26|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 3:59:53||2016-09-24 3:59:53||2016-11-13 22:41:46||2016-11-13 22:41:46|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:01:41||2016-09-24 4:01:41||2016-11-12 22:42:19||2016-11-13 22:42:16|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:02:06||2016-09-24 4:02:06||2016-11-13 22:42:28||2016-11-13 22:42:28|
||Political Criticism||2016-11-10 1:11:16||2016-11-10 1:11:16||2016-11-13 1:18:14||2016-11-13 1:18:14|
||Political Criticism||2016-11-10 1:11:13||2016-11-10 1:11:13||2016-11-13 1:18:13||2016-11-13 1:18:13|
||File-sharing||2016-09-24 4:03:00||2016-09-24 4:03:00||2016-11-13 22:42:44||2016-11-13 22:42:44|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:05:18||2016-09-24 4:05:18||2016-11-13 0:08:58||2016-11-13 22:43:49|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:05:19||2016-09-25 4:05:11||2016-11-13 22:43:49||2016-11-13 22:43:49|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:07:28||2016-09-24 4:07:28||2016-11-13 22:44:57||2016-11-13 22:44:57|
||News Media||2016-09-24 3:49:08||2016-09-24 3:49:08||2016-11-13 22:33:31||2016-11-13 22:33:31|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:10:13||2016-09-24 4:10:13||2016-11-13 22:45:27||2016-11-13 22:45:27|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:10:23||2016-09-24 4:10:23||2016-11-13 22:45:29||2016-11-13 22:45:29|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:13:39||2016-09-24 4:13:39||2016-11-12 22:46:31||2016-11-13 22:46:36|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:13:41||2016-09-24 4:13:41||2016-11-13 22:46:41||2016-11-13 22:46:41|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:14:34||2016-09-24 4:14:34||2016-11-13 22:47:19||2016-11-13 22:47:19|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:17:45||2016-09-24 4:17:45||2016-11-13 22:49:53||2016-11-13 22:49:53|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:20:34||2016-09-24 4:20:34||2016-11-13 22:52:00||2016-11-13 22:52:00|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:21:36||2016-09-24 4:21:36||2016-11-13 22:52:34||2016-11-13 22:52:34|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:32:04||2016-09-24 4:32:04||2016-11-13 22:55:28||2016-11-13 22:55:28|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:41:19||2016-09-24 4:41:19||2016-11-13 23:01:30||2016-11-13 23:01:30|
||News Media||2016-09-24 3:49:15||2016-09-24 3:49:15||2016-11-13 22:33:33||2016-11-13 22:33:33|
||News Media||2016-09-24 3:51:03||2016-09-24 3:51:03||2016-11-13 1:15:58||2016-11-13 1:15:58|
||News Media||2016-09-24 3:51:00||2016-09-24 3:51:00||2016-11-13 1:15:57||2016-11-13 1:15:57|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:42:12||2016-09-24 4:42:12||2016-11-13 23:02:11||2016-11-13 23:02:11|
||Gambling||2016-09-24 4:43:02||2016-09-24 23:02:44||2016-11-13 23:02:49||2016-11-13 23:02:49|
||News Media||2016-09-24 3:47:22||2016-09-24 3:47:22||2016-11-13 22:32:39||2016-11-13 22:32:39|
||Religion||2016-09-24 3:49:29||2016-09-24 3:49:29||2016-11-13 1:14:02||2016-11-13 1:14:02|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:48:34||2016-09-24 4:48:34||2016-11-13 23:05:43||2016-11-13 23:05:43|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:49:57||2016-09-24 4:49:57||2016-11-13 23:06:26||2016-11-13 23:06:26|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:50:56||2016-09-24 4:50:56||2016-11-13 23:06:59||2016-11-13 23:06:59|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:50:56||2016-09-24 23:06:57||2016-11-13 0:49:33||2016-11-13 23:06:59|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:51:03||2016-09-24 4:51:03||2016-11-13 23:07:06||2016-11-13 23:07:06|
||Pornography||2016-09-24 4:51:07||2016-09-24 4:51:07||2016-11-13 23:07:07||2016-11-13 23:07:07|
||Hosting and Blogging platforms||2016-09-24 3:49:13||2016-09-24 3:49:13||2016-11-13 22:33:33||2016-11-13 22:33:33|
||File-sharing||2016-09-24 4:51:47||2016-09-24 23:07:17||2016-11-13 23:07:28||2016-11-13 23:07:28|
||File-sharing||2016-09-24 4:51:49||2016-09-25 6:06:53||2016-11-12 23:07:42||2016-11-13 23:07:29|
The chart below illustrates that porn, gambling and news websites were
found to be blocked the most. Similarly, torrenting sites and websites
expressing political criticism also presented relatively high
of blocking from the sites that were found to be blocked.
Recently, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) announced the blocking of 5,044 websites for various offenses under the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998. According to Malaysia’s Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister, most of these websites include pornography, while others include gambling, piracy, unregistered medicine, and counterfeit products. Some of these sites might be included in the findings of this study, but the blocking of news outlets that covered the 1MDB scandal appears to be politically motivated.
In the following subsections we dive into each of these categories to examine what was found to be blocked in Malaysia during the testing period.
1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is a strategic development company, wholly owned by the Government of Malaysia, that was established to drive the country’s economic development through global strategic partnerships and foreign direct investment. The scandal first broke out when the Wall Street Journal reported that it had seen a paper trail that allegedly traced close to \$700m to the personal bank accounts of Malaysia’s Prime Minister. But negative attention towards the 1MDB had already been drawn since early 2015, after it missed payments that it owed to banks and bondholders.
Two Malaysian news websites, the Malaysian Insider and Sarawak Report, were reportedly blocked in February 2015 for covering the scandal. Sarawak Report mirrored its site, and that was blocked too. The government justified the blocking on the grounds of “maintaining peace, stability, and harmony in the country”. A month later, the Malaysian Insider shut down completely, despite having gained popularity in the country. And according to our testing, both sites remain blocked in Malaysia to date.
Similarly, we also found the website of Asia Sentinel, another news outlet that heavily covered Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, to be blocked. Asia Sentinel is an independent media outlet that reports on news from all across Asia. In 2014, Asia Sentinel won the 2014 SOPA Award for Excellence in Explanatory Journalism. As part of our testing, www.asiasentinel.com consistently returned a block page.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has justified the blocking of these sites on the grounds of national security under Section 233 of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).
Blocked news websites
Several political blogs were found to be blocked as part of our study. Amongst them, a satirical photo blog that specializes in Malaysian politics and which covered the 1MDB scandal returned block pages every time we tested it. Similarly, a blog that serves as a publishing platform for short articles, information, and thoughts that are “outside the box” was also found to be blocked based on the DNS injection of a block page.
Interestingly, a blog which published documents pertaining to the mismanagement of public funds in relation to the 1MDB scandal was also found to be blocked. This blog also expresses frustration with how funds of the Malaysian Pilgrims Funds Board (Tabung Haji) were misappropriated when used to bail out the 1MDB. Malaysia’s Prime Minister has denied these allegations, stating “*Why would we use public money to bail out 1MDB? That is not a mark of a responsible government.*” Yet, this blog remains blocked according to our testing.
Malaysia Chronicle is a news outlet that provides citizens with the opportunity to “speak up on politics, business, and social”. Most of its articles express political criticism and according to our findings, this site remained blocked throughout the testing period.
Blocked sites expressing political criticism
While Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Islam is the country’s state religion. As part of this study, we found a site expressing heavy criticism towards Islam to be blocked in Malaysia.
This site keeps track of and enumerates the amount of terror attacks, suicide blasts, and deaths and injuries worldwide. It also publishes articles that document violence against non-Muslims in Bangladesh and other countries around the world.
In the Malaysian context, this site can be viewed as inciting hatred towards Islam and its blocking can therefore be justified under the 1948 Sedition Act, which prohibits the incitement of hatred towards any religion.
Blocked site criticising Islam
Hosting and Blogging platforms
Once the Sarawak Report was blocked for covering the 1MDB scandal, it subsequently attempted to have its articles published on medium.com, one of the world’s most popular online publishing platforms. However, this resulted in the blocking of medium.com for hosting stories by Sarawak Report.
OONI data collected as part of this study shows that medium.com was blocked throughout the testing period.
Blocked blogging platform
Two different versions of The Pirate Bay, a site that facilitates peer-to-peer file-sharing amongst users of the BitTorrent protocol, was found to be blocked as part of our study. Similarly, two other torrenting sites were also found to be blocked.
These sites might be part of the thousands of websites that were recently announced to be blocked by the MCMC for enabling piracy, which is viewed as an offense under Malaysia’s 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).
Blocked torrenting sites
Adult Friend Finder, one of the world’s most popular online dating sites, was found to be blocked as part of this study. It remains unclear though what the motivation was behind the blocking of this particular site, and not other popular dating sites.
Blocked online dating site
Pornography is strictly banned in Malaysia and the censorship of pornographic websites can be justified under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. As part of this study, the following pornographic websites were found to be blocked.
Blocked porn websites
Under Sharia Law, online gambling is considered a serious crime. As part of this study, we found the following gambling sites to be blocked in the country.
Blocked gambling sites
Acknowledgement of limitations
The findings of this study present various limitations, and do not necessarily reflect a comprehensive view of internet censorship in Malaysia.
The first limitation is associated with the testing period, which started on 24th September 2016 and concluded less than two months later, on 13th November 2016. As such, censorship events which may have occurred before and/or after the testing period are not examined as part of this study.
Another limitation to this study is associated to the amount and types of URLs that were tested for censorship. As mentioned in the methodology section of this report (“Creating a Malaysian test list”), the criteria for selecting URLs that are relevant to Malaysia were biased. The URL selection bias was influenced by the core objective of this study, which sought to examine whether sites expressing political criticism and defending human rights were blocked. Furthermore, while a total of 1,618 different URLs were tested for censorship as part of this study, we did not test all of the URLs on the internet, indicating the possibility that other websites not included in test lists might have been blocked.
While network measurements were collected from two local vantage points in Malaysia (AS4788 and AS17971), OONI’s software tests were not run from all vantage points in the country where different censorship events might have occurred.
This study provides data that serves as evidence of the DNS blocking of 39 different websites in Malaysia. Since block pages were detected for all of these sites, their censorship is confirmed and undeniable.
The blocked websites include news outlets, blogs, and a popular publishing platform (medium.com). These sites were reportedly first blocked in 2015 for covering the 1MDB scandal and, according to our findings, remained blocked throughout the testing period of this study (24th September 2016 to 13th November 2016). While the blocking of these sites has been justified on the grounds of national security under Section 233 of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), these censorship events appear to be politically motivated.
Amongst the blocked websites, we found a site that expresses heavy criticism towards Islam. In the Malaysian context, this site can be viewed as inciting hatred towards Islam and its censorship can therefore be justified under Malaysia’s Sedition Act 1948 which prohibits the incitement of hatred towards any religion. We also found a popular online dating site to be blocked, but the motivation and/or legal justification behind its blocking remains unclear.
As part of our study, we found multiple pornographic, gambling, and torrenting sites to be blocked, which might fall under the thousands of websites that were announced to be blocked by the MCMC. The censorship of pornography can be legally justified under the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, while the blocking of gambling sites can be justified under the Common Gaming Houses Act 1953 (Act 289) and under the Pool Betting Act 1967.
On a positive note, some previously blocked sites (Bersih rally websites) were found to be accessible. No signs of censorship were detected when examining the accessibility of social media, censorship circumvention tools and LGBTI websites, and we did not detect the presence of any “middle boxes” capable of performing internet censorship. However, this does not mean that censorship equipment is not present in the country, but just that these particular tests were not able to highlight its presence.