Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

With all of today's technology, one would think that it would be easy to track down the owners of "illegal" sites. It's much more complicated than that.

How do banned/illegal organizations host their websites on the internet? I mean, how can Al Qaeda host their websites/forums to recruit followers without getting caught? How do they get their domain registered? My second question is related to the first one. How can Taliban/Anonymous (Hacker Group) tweet or use Facebook without getting caught? Why can't they be caught from their IP address?

This is actually a very complex question that involves some amount of technology - and what can and can be done with it.

More than anything else, though, it's about international law, politics, and a very, very stark realization.

Not everyone on the planet thinks as we might.

And that "planet" part is important.

An IP address doesn't get you far

As I've written about before, an IP address only gets you so far. At best, it only gets you to a device that's connected directly to the internet. Mere mortals like you and I can't even get that far, because the information about who owns that device or where it is located is protected by the internet service provider.

"... sites ... are often hosted in countries that have limited enforcement resources or technical knowledge.”

In the U.S., that means that we first have to get a court order or other legal document to force the ISP to provide that information.

Even then, if that device is simply a router behind which there are many computers, the IP address alone hasn't told you which one. Through proxies, routers, and anonymization servers, it's very possible for the actual computer involved to be very well hidden. That's one of the ways that the hacker group Anonymous has remained so elusive.

But let's pretend for a moment that it's not. Agencies working at the behest of the government probably have all the legal paperwork that they need and almost certainly have ready access to all the technical details.

On top of that, my guess is that most of the larger organizations that you're thinking of don't need to hide their server locations.

Not everyone agrees with you

Organizations that are considered evil in one part of the world may not be so despised elsewhere.

What's banned or illegal in one country might not be in another - and the internet is global.

An organization that you or I might vehemently disagree with needs only to find a country or location that is friendly to (or at least tolerant of) their cause to host their technology. Having done so, they're on the internet.

Now a knee-jerk reaction would be to sanction that hosting country somehow, or cut off their internet.

Sanctioning enters into the realm of politics that I don't really want to go into very deeply, other than to say that it's never that simple. Relationships with other countries are complex and are often important to maintain, even when we might disagree with some of their beliefs and policies.

Cutting off the internet not only requires the cooperation of all of the surrounding regions that might be feeding in internet (and hence, their unanimous agreement that it should be done - not so easily accomplished), but also has the unintended side-effect of cutting off everyone, including dissidents and others who might be more sympathetic to and working for our causes.

Not everyone has the resources

Perhaps a more common problem is that sites - including the not only politically controversial, but even malware, piracy or other sites that we might more commonly come into contact with - are often hosted in countries that have limited enforcement resources or technical knowledge.

This is something that we actually see in our own country - a small local town's sheriff might not have the expertise to even deal with an internet-related issue or the budget to get help. As a result, less serious internet-related issues are simply not prioritized.

The same is true at a global scale. Less developed or more cash-strapped countries may well have internet and internet hosting of some sort, but not the expertise or resources to pursue anything but the most heinous internet-related issues. Finding out who's behind a website hosted in their country might be well out of their abilities.

Remember free speech?

While it doesn't apply globally, in the United States, we pride ourselves on this concept of free speech, perhaps best exemplified by the quote "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

That brings us back to U.S.-based hosting - just because we disagree with something that's posted on the internet doesn't mean that it can't be posted.1 Indeed, free speech means that all viewpoints, however repugnant, can be heard.

So many of the organizations that you might find offensive actually can be legally hosted right here at home.

It's not until that they actually do something illegal that stronger measures can be taken.

Now, in some cases, simply advocating illegal actions - perhaps such as a violent overthrow of the government - would itself be illegal. As a result, that's why many websites that take extreme positions and advocate illegal activity are more often hosted as I mentioned earlier; off-shore in countries that are more tolerant of their positions or less able to do anything about it.

1 "free speech" is often incorrectly used as an argument when posting comments. That's not how it works. The owner of a site is free to control the content of his site and that includes deleting comments and if appropriate, banning commenters. That's not a violation of free speech, but rather basic property rights. On the other hand, those who wish to share opinions that would be banned on another person's site are quite free to set up a site of their own on which they can express those views.

Please note: I post this article with some trepidation, as it ventures into the realm of international politics and I know many people have strong opinions on the topic. I absolutely invite comments, but require that you keep them respectful. As site owner, I will exercise my rights to delete abusive comments and/or even disable commenting entirely if it becomes unmanageable.

Article C4896 - August 5, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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12 Comments
Virginia Smith
August 9, 2011 8:53 AM

On the positive side, web chatter tells the law enforcement teams at least as much as it tells the chatterers. Consider how many plots, big & small, have been foiled by what the law guys learn from the Internet, even if we don't always hear a lot about that.

Paul
August 9, 2011 8:59 AM

Thanks Leo, well said.

As usual, you write in a logical, intelligent, well balanced manner. If only every commenter on the internet would behave so.

Barry Zander
August 9, 2011 10:29 AM

Leo, an excellent handling of an explosive question. Having the right of free speech is sometimes painful, but living in our nation would be much more painful without it.

Steve Burgess
August 9, 2011 11:25 AM

Well said, Leo. It is sometimes surprising to find well-reasoned and reasonable discourse when it touches on politics. Perhaps it was always so...

Snert
August 9, 2011 1:12 PM

Cut and pasted fron Wikipedia.
"The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that "[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "[e]veryone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice". Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals"."

Your opinion might differ from Fred's and Barney's might differ from both but we can say what we want as long as we don't stomp on toes.

Margaret Louk
August 9, 2011 7:13 PM

One other thing, when you read the blog of someone you disagree with, it tells you who they are, and what they believe in. When they say I never said that, you will know what they did say.

Harry Hayes
August 10, 2011 2:22 AM

I agree with the other previous comments, that was very diplomatically handled Leo. But why you should have to tread so carefully so as not to upset these people is a worry to me. Some are inciting terrorism and violence globally, you are only doing your job and quite legitimately, but I suspect with the thought of reprisals in mind when composing the article. It seems to me freedom of speech works well for the bad guys.


Georges Oth
August 10, 2011 6:10 AM

Very good answer, Leo.
What we should consider too, is, that if the means existed to "exclude" a country or site or ... we consider as hostile, the reverse is true: what if all the islamic/islamistic or other fundamentalist countries ask to "isolate" the US or Europe as hostile to their ideas? I hear the outcry, but they really think they are in the right, we are wrong, as all organizations that imagine they have the sole truth.

Karl M
August 10, 2011 6:12 AM

Leo, well said. It worries me that a U.S. Senator said the following, "The media has got to begin to not give equal time or equal balance to an absolutely absurd notion just because somebody asserts it or simply because somebody says something which everybody knows is not factual, it doesn't deserve the same credit as a legitimate idea about what you do." If the idea is not factual then prove that --it will strengthen your position. God save us from out betters. (I'm using "betters" sarcastically)
( transcript and video: http://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2011/08/05/sen-kerry-asks-media-stop-giving-equal-time-or-equal-balance-absurd-t )

mona
August 22, 2011 1:26 PM

Great article,I sometimes wondered why extremist groups are able to connect so easily with the rest of the world.
To reply to Karl M's point bothering to disprove nonsense like ,for example,creationism while discussing something about evolution actually strengthens that lunatic notion by identifying it as worthy of a reply.Having free speech is one thing but the media seems to think that means they are obligated to give all opinions equal airtime -and equal respect-even in time-slots that should be untainted like during the nightly news ,when all it means is ,feel free to yammer on to passersby .

Steve Blake
August 28, 2011 11:36 AM

Very well put Leo. As usual, a rational explanation of what is going on put in a way we can all understand. Thanks.

Karl M
August 29, 2011 12:32 PM

Let me see if I understand you mona -- free speech is fine as long as it isn't nonsense? And who gets to decide what is or is not nonsense? You?
God save us from our betters.
Karl M

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