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February 18, 2009

[podcast] Seeing the network – Its traffic, obstructions, and its social effect

The latest Radio Berkman podcast talks with Jonathan Zittrain about Herdict, a service that lets us together discover which sites are being blocked by whom. Then there’s an interview with Judith Donath about her MIT Museum installation that lets us experience what it means to live in a world supersaturated with information.

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February 10, 2009

[berkman] JZ on Herdict

Jonathan Zittrain is talking at a Berkman lunch, about Herdict. [Note: I’m liveblogging, making mistakes, missing stuf, go wrong in every which way.] Herdict wants to help create “an emegent sense of what’s going on with this network” especially as network blockages and filterings are happening. Herdict tries to enlist people at large to answer the question “What’s going on with the Net?”

In the first instance, the team picked terms that it thought a regime might find objectionable, logged in as if from that country, and saw which sites are blocked. They then asked anyone on the Net to contribute sites that might be blocked, which the team then checked. In the next instance, they used open proxies. Then they teamed up with the Open Net Initiative to rigorously test filtering in about 50 countries. The result was the book Access Denied.

But to scale, they created Herdict (the verdict of the herd). As you surf, the sheep logo changes color: Green means nothing is blocked, grey means some people are blocked from the site, red means people you know have reported that it’s inaccessible. When you can’t get to a site, you can create a report

The Herdict Web site ( you can see a live map of blockages. You can also filter by country. You can also go to a page internally referred to as “AmIBlockedOrNot” — officially, “The Reporter” — that will show you pages and ask if you can see them.

Herdict is collecting information not just about government filters, but wherever you expected to find info and did not. E.g., if YouTube has taken content down, Herdict wants to know about it.

Q: Can it be gamed?
A: Yes. But we can also manually inspect suspicious reports of sites.

Q: Privacy?
A: We record the IP addresses of reporters. We want to know where people are reporting from.

Q: The biggest risk is the people doing the blocking will block the sheep-server.
A: The only real countermeasure is to let people access it over SSL.
A: When the first state tries to block it — remember, it’s not a circumvention tool; it doesn’t show you anything you can’t otherwise can’t get too — I’ll take it as the first measure of success.

Q: Suppose someone uses Tor to reach Herdict to make reports …
A: We’ll see that it’s someone using Tor.

Q: [me] In the best cse, how does this information get used to make the world better?
A: We’ll “out” blockages. It might make it more difficult for regimes to block sites. It also provides data to academics and others. You can learn a lot about China from what it chooses to filter and how the filtering changes. Finally, success would be fostering a sense of participation on the Net…a sense of the Net as something that’s improved by your own contributions, you’re building a commons, you’re building a “digital nervous system,” to quote Bill Gates, for the Internet. Most blocking happens by IP address, but those change over time, which means your site may be blocked into China; this would enable a “title search” on IP addresses to see what sort of troubles it’s had.

Q: You could piggyback on Twitter…
A: Twitter might be one of the sites that get filtered early by a state worried about Web 2.0. But, you could even come up with a hash tag on Twitter. And it’d give you an independent database of reports…
A: There is already a herdict twitter account.
A: We’re excited about the possibility of including Herdict as a default add-in to existing channels.
Q: It’d be great if, when you’re blocked, you get an error msg that lets you report it directly to Herdict.

Q: Some users are very interested in blocked sites. How do you protect the privacy of those users? E.g., Someone in China coming in to your central server?
A: We’re hoping that it’s not just activists who will use it. We could have an addon that checks sites in the background, but we don’t want to ask anyone to visit a site that they haven’t given actual permission to visit. But the Chinese (or whomever) can watch who is visiting the site. But we don’t put up your IP address; it’s not visible on the site.

A: We wouldn’t be adverse to Herdict notification being offered when you register a domain name: Would you like to be alerted if your site is being blocked?

A: On the Web site, we obey your choice about Google safe sites about which sites to show you. We also heed Google’s list of malware sites.

Q: Does the color of the sheep reflect the page or the site?
A: The site.

Q: [charlie nesson] You’re describing a piece of sw that will hold up a mirror to all of the powerful entities who are filtering. Could you comment on the political dimensions? And, how are you going to launch it? And, do you have any line of defense when the blowback comes?
A: When we first came out with the studies in 2002 — first of China and then of Saudi Arabia — that made a pretty good splash. The Saudis actually had given us permission to be on their network for 2 wks. Think of things that seem inane that then become indispensible, e.g., twitter, blogs, wikipedia. The dream is that Herdict become like this. My dream is that that happens so that when the blowback comes, knowing where you can get to and you can’t and why is just part of the functioning Internet. As for the introduction, let’s talk…

Q: Maybe partner with sites where people are bored, like www.ask500people

Q: [me] The fact that you call it The Reported instead of AmIBlockedOrNot is not a good sign for PR. But how about on launch focusing on one particular region so we get good results quickly, rather than broad results>

Q: There are English-speaking communities in China…

Q: Maybe the sheep can tell me about my current ISP.
A: It’s not perfect data because we’re pulling it from a database of ISPs, but good idea.

Q: Isn’t that similar to what Google is developing?
A: Yes, but for every possible development. Google is building tools for checking Net neutrality. They’re more into the tools and details. We’re about can you get there.

Q: You should hitch up with Charlie Nesson…

Q: Maybe there’s a built-in audience for people who have desk jobs and do a lot of dilbert-esque surfing.
A: And slashdot.

Q: The more you can like it a game, the better. And it’s a great educational tool.
A: Do we want some persistence in reporting. Do you want an ID on Herdict? You could accrue points. We’ve put it on the backburner for now.

Q: Is there a function in the plugin to make it easy to ask friends whether a particular site is blocked.
A: We have a “test a website” feature. It’s our “view site report” function.
A: We’ve talked about building community
A: We have embed code so on your blog you can embed either the herdometer or the ticker.

Q: You should move as much of the infrastructure as you can onto, say, Amazon. [Tags: ]

We then celebrate Charlie Nesson’s 70th birthday…

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January 12, 2009

Chinese circumvention sites selling user data

Hal Roberts, at the Berkman Center, blogs that he’s found that three suppliers of tools that allow those in China to circumvent the government’s restrictions on the Internet — DynaWeb FreeGate, GPass, and FirePhoenix — are selling information about the behavior of their users.

The sites freely publish anonymized data for people doing research on Net trends, but they will also sell you identifiable information … if you pass their smell test. Hal points to one company’s faq:

Q: I am interested in more detailed and in-depth visit data. Are they available?

A: Yes, we can generate custom reports that cover different levels of details for your purposes, based on a fee. But data that can be used to identify a specific user are considered confidential and not shared with third parties unless you pass our strict screening test. Please contact us if you have such a need.

From hands considered safe to the hands of totalitarians with a grudge is a distressingly short distance.

Hal concludes:

This sort of thing demonstrates that there is no way to eliminate points of control from a network. You can only move them around so that you trust different people. In this case, Chinese users are replacing some of the trust in their local Chinese ISPs with trust in the circumvention projects through which they are proxying their traffic. But those tools are acting as virtual ISPs themselves and so have all the potential for control (and abuse) that the local ISPs have. They can snoop on user activity; they can filter and otherwise tamper with connections; they can block P2P traffic.

So, yes, the Net routes around restrictions. But those routes themselves are subject to all the weaknesses to which we are heir. [Tags: ]

[January 15: Rebecca MacKinnon spoke with some of the principles and blogs their explanations.]

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December 17, 2008

Radio Berkman podcast: Free, national, and for five-year-olds

In this week’s Radio Berkman podcast, I interview Stephen Schultze about the FCC’s auctioning off spectrum to a national provider who would be required to use 25% of it for free, nationwide wifi. There’s only one catch: That wifi would have to only connect to sites and services that are safe for minors (defined as people between 5 and 18).

After we had recorded this interview last week, the FCC postponed voting on the proposal, and since it’s the baby of the outgoing Chair, it’s probably postponed forever. Still, the idea raises some really interesting issues. Steve and I focus on the free speech considerations, although the opposition from other spectrum-holders certainly could not have encouraged the FCC.

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November 13, 2008

Celebrities block themselves from Argentinian search results

From a post by Firuzeh Shokooh Valle and Christopher Soghoian at the Open Net Initiative site:

Since 2006, Internet users in Argentina have been blocked from searching for information about some of country’s most notable individuals. Over 100 people have successfully secured temporary restraining orders that direct Google and Yahoo! Argentina to scrub the results of search queries. The list of censorship-seeking celebrities includes judges, public officials, models and actors, as well as the world-cup soccer star and national team head coach Diego Maradona.

Wow. Argentinian celebrities either have a different view of celebrity or of the Web, or both.

The post (which contains much more detail) notes that Yahoo was not notifying searchers that their search results were being blocked, a violation of the Global Net Initiative ethical guidelines that Yahoo, Google, and others recently promulgated. But, Chris Soghoian in an email notes that yesterday Yahoo fixed the transparency problem.

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July 24, 2008

Why the FCC should not be requiring that the Internet be safe for five year olds

A group of folks, led by Wendy Seltzer, Geoff Goodell and Steve Schultze, has filed a comment on the FCC’s proposal that it give away some public spectrum to be used for national Internet access, with the requirement that the provider censor it down to what’s safe for a five year old. Wendy and her friends produced what I think is an outstanding, thorough, and legally-based criticism of this plan. (I’m proud to be one of the many signatories.) [Tags: ]

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March 6, 2008

Ethanz is one cute cat! In the good sense.

Ethan Zuckerman presented his “cute cat” theory — how repressive gov’ts use Web 2.0 to further their repressive aims — at eTech. You can read Wired’s coverage here.

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February 4, 2008

Class Notes #3

A student in each session of The Web Difference will blog the class, so I’m not going to live blog the course, which I could only do when John Palfrey is leading it, as he is today. So, what follows are some some notes and comments. (The class notes will be up on the site tomorrow, probably.)

JP explains the “layer” view: Infrastructure, Logic, Apps, Content. He indicates that the layers are messy and that this is over-simplified. But I’m struck by the layer-cake look of this, with each tier slightly narrower than the one beneath it. Presumably, this is so the structure will look sturdy. But if it were drawn to scale, the content layer would be like a frisbee balanced on a pin.

The main topic today is whether you can see the same Internet from anywhere in the world. Answer: No, you can’t. JP points to Internet Services Unit where you can report sites to the Saudi government as deserving to be blocked. The Saudis block by having a single big pipe out to the Internet. Everything has to flow through the Saudi proxy. The Chinese filter similarly but also at every layer of the stack.

JP points to a site that compares the results of Google searches run here and in China. In poking around during the class, we discover that Chinese language searches seem to get the same results whether you’re searching from or, as if is assuming that if you are looking for search terms in Chinese, you want to see the censored results. Odd.

John takes the class through the many, many ways countries can filter the Net. Then he leads a discussion of which elements of a society might be interested in either filtering the Net or keeping it open.

John is going to Turkey tonight for talks with various interested parties there about the virtues and vices of maintaining an open Internet. [Tags: ]

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