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[berkman] Open Net Initiative

Rob Faris and John Palfrey are giving a talk on “The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering,” a talk about the Open Net Initiative . The ONI is a joint project by Oxford, Cambridge, U of Toronto and Berkman. About 50 people have worked on gathering this data.The new study (coming out as a book called Access Denied) reports on forty countries that block access one way or another. Countries can’t do this on their own, he says.

Over the past five years, the states doing filtering have gone for a few to dozens. East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East are the main places that filter.

How can the ONI involve more people, John asks. How can the ONI make the data more relevant? Already you can suggest sites to test and you can submit a URL and see where it’s blocked.

Rob talks about a “taxonomy of Internet content restriction strategies.” There are many ways to limit information on line. A state can take down illegal sites, remove search results, filter content, arrest and intimidate, require registration and licensing and ID, hold ISPs responsible, and monitor. There’s no filtering in Egypt, for example, but a blogger was just imprisoned. Bahrain took down access to Google Earth just as a politically uncomfortable mashup was circulating. China blocks Wikipedia. Gay and lesbian sites are blocked in many countries. The Gulf states comprehensively block gambling sites. Thailand blocks access to the book “The King Never Smiles.” Anonymizers and The Onion Router are frequently blocked. (Rob mentions the great ONI page where you can see the search results at Google.com and Google.cn for the same term.)

To comprehensively block the Internet, countries rely on software, using automatic ways of identifying offensive material, which makes lots of mistakes. “Internet filtering is inherently flawed.” You get over-blocking, underblocking and mis-categorization. Some countries are transparent about the blocking, but many do not.

“Once you put in the infrastructure for social filtering,” says Rob, you also seem to institute political blocking.

Q: [yochai benkler] This is important work. But the most important part of it is the detail your work covers. “The level of detail that goes into the country studies suggests” a different way of presenting it. E.g., transparency. How do you do as someone who respects democracy deal with the transparent process in Saudi Arabia? The Saudis say exactly what they’re doing. They say they’re protecting a cultural discourse. They let people add to it or subtract to the list of blocked sites. Mapping these differences among countries would be very helpful.
A: [jp] We’ve spent three years collecting data. That’s been our aim. Now the challenge is how to make it useful. Do we want to give an open API to all the sites that are blocked? Do we want to give this list to everyone including the censors? And how much should we write in our country studies? The first ones were very long, with lots of context, but not many people read them. So, we’ve shifted to shorter reports, more coverage, and deep dives at times. And we’ve done a book that gives straightforward data, plus a series of contextualizing chapters. We’re trying to have it all ways. [I.e., they’re being miscellaneous. :) ] Also, we’re working with several companies on a code of conduct for international companies.

Q:[ethanz] People in filtered countries are often desperate just to get confirmation that they’re being blocked. It’s been tough to get rapid response out of ONI. Activists are writing their own tools, often not as good as ONI’s tools. And it’d be great if you had a handbook that others could use who are not as technical as you.

Q: There’s a lot of data to be gathered about how countries are changing their laws to achieve the aims of filtering.
A: We’ve started doing that. We’ve sent clinical students to countries to look into this.

Q: What do you do to help bloggers?
A: We’re not advocating, at least at this point. We’re just describing.

Q: ONI is done by a localized group. How do we get the average user to take part in checking on filtering, etc.?
A: We’re definitely thinking about this. Jonathan Zittrain wants to do a distributed app, like [email protected] . We’ve started the design of this.

Q: As you’ve said, American high tech companies provide filtering technology. Corporate responsibility has been discussed forever…
A: For the past two days, a group has been meeting in London, drafting principles. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Vodaphone are there, as well as the ONI.

Q: How can you release the information listing the censored applications?
A: We have a tool under development that lets you see which countries block a site. We’re struggling with making it available because we are reluctant to give this information to censors. [The demo shows that Technorati is blocked in China and Iran and BoingBoing is blocked in Iran, Saudia Arabia, Sudan and Tunisia.]

Q: How has filtering changed since you started monitoring it in 2002?
A: We haven’t collected enough data. When we started we only looked at a few countries.

Q: [catherine bracy] How do you know what countries want to join the filtering club?
A: They’re debating legislation. There are a half dozen in Latin America. A bill is floating in Norway that’s breathtaking in its breadth…

Q: [ethan] Should you be helping people filter better? Thailand blocks all of YouTube to get rid of one offensive video. You could help them out…
A: [jp] I had a frank conversation with the Thai censor. Fascinating. I see us doing more of that.

A: [rob] That is remarkably close to The Google Question.

[Conclusion: Not only can the Internet be blocked, it’s way easier than we’d thought. There are so many ways to do it. And it can be done at multiple levels, from tech to legislation. Hence, is there no single way to unblock it?]


Seth Finkelstein figured out why BoingBoing got banned from Boston’s free wifi. Omigod. Censorship shouldn’t be this stupid. Unfortunately, it just about always is.

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One Response to “[berkman] Open Net Initiative”

  1. this site should not be blocked because i want to see it


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