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November 16, 2009

UN’s Internet Governance Forum censors a mild mention of censorship

Holy cow!

The Open Net Initiative, a group that monitors government filtering (= censorship) of the Internet held a book launch at the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum in Sharm El Sheik. A poster for the book — Access Controlled — contained the sentence: “The first generation of Internet controls consisted largely of building firewalls at key Internet gateways; China’s famous ‘Great Firewall of China’ is one of the first national Internet filtering systems.”

This statement was so objectionable, so outrageous, such a violation of common decency, such a hateful expression, such an offense to the tender sensibilities of UN diplomats that it must not ever be uttered. Security guards were sent to take the poster down.

If the people who want to govern the Internet think that’s beyond the pale of free speech, what the hell are they going to do with the rest of the Internet?

And, by the way, if you want to see what it looks like when UN diplomats take bold action, watch this video of the take-down itself.

[Source, video statement by ONI, BoingBoingage]

(Disclosure: the Berkman Center is a member of ONI.)


October 1, 2009

Sub-Saharan Africa: Generally an open Net

A new report from the Open Net Initiative (in which the Berkman Center is a participant) says that among Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Nigeria, only Ethiopia does any substantial amount of blocking of sites:

Filtering in Ethiopia was found to be substantial in regard to both political and conflict/security sites. Ethiopian authorities have also blocked two major blogging platforms, Blogger and Nazret, suggesting political bloggers are the prime targets of censure.

The full report is here.

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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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November 25, 2008

Googling for tanks in China

Here’s an odd thing.

I was sure that when Google China first started cleansing its results, a search for “tiananmen” at Google Images did not return the famous photo of the man standing in front of the line of tanks, or other photos of the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Today it does.

Even odder, I was talking with Lokman Tsui of the Berkman Center about this, and he discovered that if you search for “tiananmen” using the Chinese characters (天安门), you don’t get back photos of the demonstrations but sanitized, post-card-ish touristy photos.

On purpose? Fluke? A crack in the structure of control?

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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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