Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: March 2011 (page 2 of 4)

Microsoft Fixes Bug; Re-enables HTTPS for All Users

Yesterday, I blogged that users in Iran, all Arab countries, Burma, Nigeria, and the Central Asian nations had been blocked from turning on HTTPS encryption within Hotmail.  This was true.

According to Microsoft, this was a bug that affected users not only in those countries, but also in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and Fiji.  The company stated:

“We do not intentionally limit support by region or geography and this issue was not restricted to any specific region of the world. We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers that this may have caused.”

Having just tested this myself–by setting my country of residence on Hotmail to Syria and enabling HTTPS–I can state with certainty that the problem has been fixed.

Microsoft Hotmail: No HTTPS for Arab, Iranian Users

Update 2: Microsoft has fixed the bug; all users can now enable HTTPS.

Update: Further testing by EFF International Activist Eva Galperin found that, in addition to Arab countries and Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, Kazahstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are also affected.

This morning, a Syrian Hotmail user noted that he could not turn on HTTPS on Hotmail. At closer look, we learned that the user was actually in Jordan, and had his Hotmail location set to Jordan as well…and yet he was still blocked from turning on the “use HTTPS automatically” setting.

Specifically, Microsoft Hotmail’s HTTPS feature states that turning on HTTPS will work for Hotmail over the Web, but will cause errors through external programs.  Users can still force HTTPS temporarily, for a given page.  We have confirmed that users in some of the countries below are able to force HTTPS (either by typing it in manually or using a program like HTTPS Everywhere, however, we cannot confirm that this works for everyone, or on all pages).  In any case, it’s imperative that users have access to encryption all the time.

Replicating the Error

I quickly created a Hotmail account to see if I could replicate the situation; sure enough, when I set my location to the United States, I could turn on HTTPS as a setting, but when I switched to Jordan, I could not. I tested several other Arab countries–Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria–also no HTTPS. I then tested Guatemala, Israel, and Turkey: all fine. France, German: fine. Iran…no HTTPS.

To replicate or test for the error yourself, log in to your Hotmail account and set your location, then try to turn on HTTPS.

The message received by users with their settings turned to one of the aforementioned countries is: Your Windows Live ID can’t use HTTPS automatically because this feature is not available for your account type.

…in which “account type” = Arab/Iranian.

Incidentally, users in the aforementioned countries are able to easily change their location setting to the United States (or another country) and then successfully turn on HTTPS. It is therefore interesting that, whatever Microsoft’s reasons for barring users from HTTPS, they chose not to enforce by IP address.

By contrast, Yahoo mail does not offer HTTPS, while Gmail enforces HTTPS by default in all countries.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has acted prejudicially toward Arab users: In 2010, my colleague Helmi Noman at the OpenNet Initiative discovered that Microsoft’s Bing was blocking Arabic-speaking users (e.g., those using the Arabic-language/Arab countries version of Bing) from searching for certain terms, mostly related to sexual content.

For activists, there are two courses of action: Either change your location to a country that will allow you to enforce HTTPS or switch to Gmail or another secure service.

As for Microsoft, we’ve let them know about the situation.  It is my hope that this is a mistake and will soon be corrected.  I’ll keep you posted.

The BOBs 2011

Last year, Talk Morocco, the citizen journalism site I co-founded with Hisham Khribchi in 2009, won the Deutsche Welle Best of Blogs (BOBs) Award for Best English Blog in both the jury and user categories.  We were thrilled; our nascent project had received very little recognition up to that point, and the BOBs were a great jumping-off point for us.  Since, we’ve seen a huge increase in both readers and contributors, and have worked our way into the fabric of the Moroccan blogosphere.

This year, I was thrilled to learn that my own blog, the one you’re reading right now, had been nominated and selected as a finalist for the same category.  My blog is in amazing company, competing against the blogs of Mona Eltahawy and Juan Cole, A View from the Cave, Nairobi Nights, Rantings of a Sandmonkey, Osocio, Owen Abroad, Groundviews, MobileActive, and Gawaahi, a new project started in part by my friend Sana Saleem.

Though I would of course love your vote, I would also encourage you more generally to vote in the BOBs – there are some great contenders in every category. My votes go to Nawaat for Best Blog, Mamfakinch for Best Arabic Blog, and 3arabawy for the Reporters Without Borders award.

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