The Access Denied Map of web 2.0 censorship

The Access Denied Map is a high-impact map of the web 2.0 crackdown from Sami Ben Gharbia, creator of the Tunisian Prison mashup.

Access Denied Map

The map provides an overview of online censorship efforts related to the social web and major web 2.0 websites, and aims to amplify the local campaigns defending the right to access them. As Sami writes in his introduction; "The recent successes of ... citizen journalists and citizen watchdogs in Pakistan, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, have confirmed once again the enormous potential of user-generated content as an advocacy tool and as an alternative and independent source of news. The common characteristic of all these cases is that they have made efficient use of web 2.0 technologies in exposing abuses and injustice."

While Sami's map highlights the collision of the social web with what he neatly describes as the “authoritarian reflex”, the dimension of web 2.0 censorship unmapped in this mashup is the exercise of unaccountable authority by the sites themselves, and we need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0 along with a campaign to defend it. One aspect that increasingly interests me is the power of the social web as a cultural space; and it's the cultural (rather than directly political) aspects that, a few days ago, seems to have resulted in Syria banning Facebook. As a blogger from Damascus writes

“Who lives in Syria knows that it's the country of “nothing's going on” except to hang out in old Damascus' cafes, but recently there has been a cultural awakening; people are starting to organize their interests in concerts, galleries, conferences, plays, screenings…etc. and Facebook is facilitating the process which is very hard to do in an inactive militarily controlled society. There are no cultural institutions in Syria, no private independent NGOs, no civic institutions, who represent the populations except the government? Syrian Facebookers are trying now to represent themselves. Those who cannot be activists in a “real” Syria can be one in a virtual Syria.”

Open Net Initiative's Global Internet Filtering Conference 2007

It was a privilege to attend the OpenNet Initiative's Global Internet Filtering Conference 2007 to discuss the current state of play of Internet filtering worldwide. ONI's empirical testing in 41 countries paints a truly alarming picture of internet filtering as a growing global phenomenon. At the behest of governments, major hardware & software companies have shifted from wiring the world to barbed-wiring the world, dividing the internet into censored national enclosures. The results of ONI's work are visible at a glance in their global internet filtering map.

The principal targets of filtering activity include social themes (such as pornography), national security and political expression, defended by justifications like "it's for the kids", "it's for the motherland", or "why are you asking anyway? Maybe you should come to the security office for an interview...". But very few countries limit their filtering to a narrow set of targets - instead, a majority of countries filter a broad set of topics, suggesting that filtering regimes, once put into place, generally expand beyond their initial mandate. Non-profits and campaigning organisations should note that at least one commercial filtering package now has a tick-box to automatically enable filtering of NGO websites.

Although it is ONI's analytical toolset and technical proficiency which has made this report possible, it was clear from the conference that the technical side is only half the story. The datasets are made meaningful by the qualitative input of in-country experts, and the ONI site includes country profiles and regional overviews replete with political, legal and social context.

The ONI have a refreshing openness about the limitations of their work, and were happy to discuss the dimensions of filtering that are outside of the scope of their report. These range from the filtering of non-web channels, especially instant messaging and cellular / mobile, to the way that sites can be censored via take-down notices or by a quiet word from local security officials. Two of the most important new areas that emerged from the day's debate were event-based filtering and the privatisation of censorship.

The OpenNet Initiative's current methodology means that a site is counted as blocked if it is consistently unavailable for the week of the testing period. While this means that ONI data is much more reliable than off-the-cuff rumours of filtering, it is obviously not well suited to government tactics of short term blocking around the time of an election or international meeting. There was a consensus at the conference that this is a critical area and there is a need for rapid-response monitoring. It also seems sensible for ONI's techniques to be a routine part of any election monitoring as well (OSCE take note).

The importance of non-state filtering was raised my many participants at the conference and from different viewpoints. Many people (especially in developing countries) get their main internet access through work or university, and workplaces are increasingly filtering and blocking internet access under the rationale of 'productivity'. Given the importance of the net for union organising there could be an important role here for trade unions. (Ironically, the Oxford college that hosted this conference issued participants with a notice warning that unauthorised internet activity would result in immediate disconnection). At a strategic level there was a lot of concern that states would outsource all filtering to private sector actors without a legal trail that could be tied back to the government. Since it's governments that are signed up to the international system of human rights legislation, this privatisation of censorship could create a kind of human rights evasion.

For me, the next question is how to make the ONI's work actionable. As someone once said, the point is not to interpret the world in various ways but to change it. What campaigning can reverse the increasing trend to broad & unaccountable internet filtering? It would certainly help if the ONI's impressive data was supplemented by human stories - people who aren't internet freedom geeks will need to understand why repressive filtering is a bad thing and how it can damage people's lives. An interesting hint of the potential impact of filtering as politicisation comes from Pakistan, where the government blocked the whole of Blogger in order to suppress one or two individual blogs. This led to the launch of the Pakistani “Don’t Block The Blog” campaign, which drew previously non-political people in to a campaign against filtering.

Influencing the legal and policy framework will be critical, and there needs to be an active link with the dynamic coalitions that have come out of the Internet Governance Forum. One curious finding of the conference was that there is a low correlation between repressive media laws and active internet filtering; those states who (on statute) hate independent media aren't necessarily big internet blockers, and vice versa. The conference workshop on the impact of internet censorship on economic development shows that filtering may incur opportunity costs as well as rights violations. It may turn out that environmental issues will become another agrument against filtering . Given the strategic and cross-cutting significance of the internet it's probably time to create a UN Special Rapporteur for Internet Freedom.

One campaigning seed within the ONI's work is the potential for action research; applying knowledge gained by studying filtering directly to techniques for circumvention. A key ONI member, Toronto's Citizen Lab, is the creator of the recently-released Psiphon software, and the conference included a session on circumvention tools with participants from TOR, Peacefire, Anonymizer, Psiphon and DynaWeb. While I understand some people's concern that ONI itself should be seen as neutral and impartial to boost the credibility of its data, I don't think that precludes more hacktivist projects. After all, most research on cancer is done by people who are unambigously committed to preventing it. As I wrote in eCampaigning for Internet Freedom, advocacy efforts will tend to be supported by the more direct policy challenge of hacktivist techniques.

One notable omission from the conference was any kind of web 2.0 / social web perspective, and yet this wave of web engagement could offer different ways to tackle filtering questions. On the one hand, the participative nature of web 2.0 offers the chance to broaden decision-making beyond the traditional choke points, and could address the kind of objection to regulation systems raised by the APC ("that key groups which are deemed to benefit from such systems – women and children – are largely absent from such discussions."). The social web offers ways to reach out to key transnational constituencies that can be affected by filtering, such as LGBT communities or diasporas. And it may also be that in the quantum foam of activity at the user-generated level there are already innovations in practical circumvention that should be researched and amplified.

Whatever happens, the ONI have already succeeded in drawing a clear line in the sand. They've objectively proven the massive expansion of internet filtering and provided weighty evidence of its scope and sophistication. They are working on ways in which this critical work can be extended by becoming more decentralised and involve more participants. It's up to the rest of us to join the effort, and to turn evidence into action.

eCampaigning for Internet Freedom

Those of us using the internet in campaigns to change some social or environmental policy call ourselves ecampaigners. But ecampaigning is based on internet freedoms which are under serious and increasing threat. Whether the dimension of freedom is technical, such as the end-to-end principle, or legal, such as the absence of state blog regulation, we can't assume it'll continue to exist. And web 2.0 (a.k.a. the social web) could accelerate the dangers to internet freedoms. It's possible that ecampaigning will become completely neutered, so that we won't be able to anything controversial, we won't be able reach half the world's population, and in any case people won't want to get involved.

privacy invasion

One of the most serious threats is privacy invasion. There's a reason why Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion - they want to learn all about our habits so they can target more effective advertising at us. Yahoo (proud owner of Flickr and Delicious) says it wants social networks to define its business - they don't just want to know about us, they also want to know about our friends. The National Security Agency in the USA has set its sights on the datamining of social networking websites for intelligence gathering. With the advent of web 2.0 we are seeing the emergence of the panoptic gaze of web 2.0 and infrastructures of dataveillance. As well as violating our individual privacy the web-enabled data aggregation can lead to “social sorting†beyond the consumer realm, allowing authorities to reinforce social differences and enact discrimination. (Ironically, this is a dark reflection of audience segmenting, which is a key technique for effective ecampaigning).


Many ecampaigners assume that the internet is still a global space, but it's actually in danger of becoming a set of censored national enclosures. Back in 2002 only 3 countries regularly filtered & blocked content (China, Iran & Saudi Arabia), but according to the Open Net Initiative it's now up to 25, and the scope of the blocking is growing, as in the recent blockings of YouTube. (The human rights impact of YouTube will be the subject of a future post here). States and corporations are inseparable partners in the business of internet filtering - as Alexandra Samuel says

In the digital era, the infrastructure for policy enforcement is often digital - and the creators of that infrastructure are generally private companies. That makes state security inseparable from corporate security; the ability to enforce policy compliance extends only to the extent that your technology is hack-proof. This creates a complicated relationship of policy interdependence among countries: consider, for example, the fact that China's firewalls - the infrastructure for its information controls, and the target of much hacktivism - run on routers from US-based Cisco.

This profitable partnership to fence off the internet leads to a kind of real-time revisionism and has received justifiable condemnation .


Many people were shocked to learn of the censorship and imprisonment of Egyptian blogger Karim Amer who was sentenced to four years in prison for defaming both the president and Islam. This unfortunate blogger wasn't a hardcore human rights activist - his blog also includes film reviews and other personal minutae. He was, however, outspoken and even offensive - which he has every right to be under international law. His jailing may prove the general point that when social media seems to be making a social difference, repression will surely follow. And in the participative spaces of web 2.0, censorship can come in many forms. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might value free expression but the same thing can't be said of YouTube's Terms of Service, which leaves content vulnerable to vague allegations of being 'objectionable' or 'inappropriate'. What becomes of freedom of expression in the pseudo-public spaces of the online monopolies?


Another threat to internet freedoms is the aggressive expansion of copyright and so-called Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Although these issues are beyond the ken of many traditional rights organisations they can have a direct impact on ecampaigning. Corporates have already responded aggressively to the use of their logos in online campaigns, although happily there have been robust defences by organisations like Greenpeace. Web sites can also be subject to take-downs through legislation such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which can become a form of legalised harassment and disruption against campaigning web sites. In the future, the Digital Rights Management technology that'll be built in to the very heart of our hardware could be spying on the fact that we've been watching a certain campaigning video on our PC. All this flies in the face of the traditional protections that copyright offered to parody and fair comment, let alone the concept that mixing and mashing is the emergent free speech of our times .

net neutrality

And finally, but perhaps fundamentally, we've all grown used to the idea that bloggers can compete with the CNN for the internet audience, and there are many examples where this has led to some kind of media or social impact. This won't be the case on Internet 2, the 'next-generation' high-speed internet which is specced out as a tightly controlled and locked-down environment, removing any of the bugs/features that gave the internet its freedom.

why should we campaign for Internet Freedom?

It's very worrying that most ecampaigners are ignoring these threats to the environment that they depend on. Of course, they're all busy doing online campaigns for the core mission of their organizations, whether it's environmental, human rights or whatever. But key techniques like blogging, social networking and global campaigning are already being impacted by reductions in internet freedoms, and this is reason enough for ecampaigners as a profession to be collectively involved in campaigning against those threats. But there's a deeper imperative as well, arising from the nature of the information society, which is the fact that the internet itself is becoming an actor in many of these core missions. For example, the internet is not just a tool for communicating about human rights, it is itself a terrain for human rights struggle. Many development organizations see access to the internet and open knowledge as a key element of economic & social development. And, as Rolf Kleef pointed out, even environmental agendas may interpenetrate the internet via the Aarhus convention (which grants the public rights regarding access to information and public participation and access to justice in environmental matters). But many established organisations don't yet get it, and the danger is they'll only realise when it's too late.

on what basis should we campaign?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legal frameworks drawn from it provide a plethora of policy tools to defend internet freedoms, ranging from Article 19's right to seek, receive and impart information freely, to Article 12's defence of privacy and even Article 20's right to freedom of assembly. Most governments are already signed up to the UDHR and (more or less) to the international treaties that flow from it. On the copyright side we can pursue the openings of Creative Commons and the work done at WIPO by organisations such as CPTech (for example the right for developing countries to manufacture local versions of AIDS drugs)

who should campaign?

In my humble opinion, all ecampaigners and the NGOs they work for should contribute to a broad coalition campaign to preserve internet freedoms. It is not safe to assume that the battle can be left to the usual suspects, whether that's digital freedom groups such as the EFF or traditional human rights organizations (whose grasp of digital issues can be pretty weak), because the issues are too broad for any one organisation to cover. In the UK it would be logical to look to existing coalitions such as the Global New Media Group, which emerged from the new media campaigning of Make Poverty History. An alternative hub could be something like the Open Rights Group , which is committed to defending civil liberties in the digital
world and was itself born out of a kind of ecampaign (a pledge on MySociety's Pledgebank). Whatever form the campaign takes it can take advantage of the way the internet itself supports emergent foms of collaborative innovation.

how should we campaign?

Almost all ecampaigning is some kind of advocacy - pressuring someone like a government official or corporate CEO to make a decision or change a decision. For sure, we need active campaigning for internet freedom, so we need to follow the tried and test methods of developing an influencing strategy & identifying target audiences. But there's also the really interesting possibility of using hacktivism, in the form of the policy circumvention defined in Hacktivism & The Future of Political Participation :

Policy circumvention is here defined as legal noncompliance that: a) is a strategic political response to a specific policy, law, regulation or court decision b) focuses on nullifying the effect of a policy, law, regulation, or court decision, and c) creates some non-excludable benefits (though there may be additional, excludable benefits of non-compliance).

Rather than waiting for a bad law to be changed, policy circumvention routes around it - a tactic that goes back to the original nature of the internet!


A good example of hacktivism in practice is the Citizen Lab's Psiphon tool. Psiphon is a censorship circumvention solution that allows users to access blocked sites in countries where the Internet is censored. A really nice aspect of Psiphon is the social side of the tool - rather than being a public tool it operates through networks of trust between people in censored and un-censored locations, which also makes it difficult for the authorities to detect or block. Another exemplar of hacktivism is The Onion Router a.k.a. Tor which provides a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tools like these act directly to negate the threats of filtering, censorship and privacy invasion. Note that policy circumvention is not the same as law-breaking; in fact, using these tools enables people to directly enact their rights under international law. Moreover, research suggests that policy circumvention is an additional pressure for policy change because it undermines the credibility of the policies themselves. It may be that policy circumvention and hacktivism will have a bigger part to play in all the ecampaigning of the future. To quote Alexandra Samuel again:

in an information economy, policy circumvention will be an expanding sphere of political activity. The domains that are most vulnerable to policy circumvention are domains that are dependent on information: information distribution, and information control. In an information age, more and more economic and social activity unfolds in these domains. That means that more and more of the state's activity, and its policy responsibilities, will unfold in domains that are vulnerable to policy circumvention by hacktivists.

Certainly there are people like Ron Deibert of the Psiphon project who are focusing on the need to develop this field of work to “ensure that protecting freedom of speech online is embedded within the research agendaâ€. Perhaps the need to defend internet freedoms gives ecampaigners an urgent incentive to pioneer this new form of campaigning.

Cyberpunk meets UNDP

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..." --William Gibson, Neuromancer
Wouldn't that be an amazing way to experience the data from the UNDP; the statistics of life and mortality, the tangents of development and disarray marked out as peaks and fjords that our avatars could fly through? The data, in fact, that Gapminder has visualised so vividly in 2D. So why not an engine that imports stats like those into Second Life, where they can be experienced in the way that William Gibson originally imagined? It seems like one step towards this is on the cards, judging by blog posts like 3D import tools for Second Life , although this still focuses on importing static 3D objects like buildings, cars and so on. Where are the pure data import tools?

And this begs the bigger question; why is Second Life a 3D representation of real-world objects at all? I know there are lots of reasons why this makes SL an interesting place with a lot of social potential. And it's actually the not-quite-real aspect that gives SL a lot of its buzz. But still, it's a virtual re-creation of our world, not the Gibsonian data-space.


Second Life is more like Neal Stephenson's Metaverse; an immersive virtual world populated by avatars. Which is cool, but it's not the Net. It doesn't help us visualise the data-space, the nodes and trails of information, including the trails that we leave and the giant repositories that bureaucracies build. Only today I was discussing with freedom of expression and privacy colleagues the urgent need to visualise these threats to online freedoms. I suspect that only when we can fly through an old skool Cyberspace will we get a keen insight in to the enroachment of censorship and corporate data-mining. Let's hope that, by then, it's not too late...

UPDATE: Gapminder and net censorship

Oops. It doesn't look like we're going to see Trendalyzer, the software behind Gapminder , used to visualise net censorship , as "Trendalyzer’s developers have left Gapminder to join Google in Mountain View". So that should make "the beauty of statistics" safe for Real-Time Revisionists.

digital diasporas & human rights

As I track the internet & human rights I keep coming across examples of digital diasporas. Maybe part of the reason I'm fascinated by diasporas is because I'm born out of one (Irish) and married in to another (Kosovan). But I'm also convinced that the conjunction of the internet (international, low barriers to access, relative freedom) and the disaporic experience will make these communities one of the demographics of innovation that Charlie Leadbeater is so interested in identifiying.
I've seen this in my previous work on multilingual websites for refugees and minority communities; when i needed to understand the complexities of getting Bengali script encoded and rendered I would turn to people like Deepayan Sarkar, a student in the USA who was a key contributor to the Free Bangla Fonts Project.
I've recently come across Drishtipat, a diaspora organisation focussed on human rights in Bangladesh, which seems like a good example of people using the internet to collaborate for positive social change back home.
"Drishtipat is a non-profit, non-political progressive expatriate Bangladeshi organization committed to safeguarding every individual's basic democratic rights, including freedom of expression, and is opposed to any and all kinds of human rights abuses in Bangladesh. We are based in the United States, and have members in every part of the globe via memberships and local chapters."
But connecting with the diaspora can be sometimes be risky. I was gripped by the case of Truong Quoc Huy, from the recent Amnesty report on internet repression in Vietnam, who was arrested for taking part in a chat room entitled "The voice of people in Viet Nam and Abroad", hosted by the PalTalk website. As the report puts it;
"Another central transformation brought about by the Internet is that those voicing dissent in cyberspace are considerably younger than most of the well-established dissidents. Chatrooms that provide web based conferences, among them the popular New York-based PalTalk, have brought thousands of young Vietnamese face to face with each other across the nation and with young Americans, French or Australians of Vietnamese origin."


It may also be the diasporic connection that provides a way to make these kind of conversations secure, when combined with a tool like Psiphon, a project of the Citizen Lab. Psiphon is a private proxy run by someone outside the censored country which allows users in-country to circumvent filtering at a national level. Since using the software requires a user in an uncensored country and one in a censored nation, diasporas are a likely userbase. In a recent talk by Ron Deibert, the Citizen Lab director, it was reported that Vietnamese and Iranian users have flocked to the software.
The issues of digital diasporas & campaigning against internet censorship converge in the interesting new campaign by ARTICLE 19 called The Persian Impediment. As well as giving in-depth info on the system of oppression in Iran and on the cases of cyberdissidents unlucky enough to be imprisoned, the site has a blog which "provides an opportunity for bloggers, non-bloggers, Iranians and non-Iranians to discuss issues of systematic online censorship". One of the recent entries is an interview with Celine Petrossian, an Iranian-Armenian-American and author of ‘Liberating the Silenced: Iranian Bloggers in the Diaspora’ . which discusses the social impact of a transnational public sphere under headings like 'Breaking the Silence', 'Challenging Social Norms' and 'Depicting the True Iran'
While these are the kinds of outcomes I would hope and expect to find, there were two other aspects of the research that caught my attention, and back up my own observation of the general effect of diasporic communities. The first is that "Iranian bloggers serve as 'merchants' of culture and information, trading cultural knowledge and news from both Iran to the outside world and from the West to the Iranian people living in Iran.". And secondly, that one of the main effects of this is to challenge the conservative restrictions on the role of women in society (both in terms of gender and sexuality).
My hope for the transational space created by the Net is that it can influence positive change while supporting people to strengthen what's best about their unique identities. This seems possible, as Petrossian concludes that "The blogging phenomenon has made it possible for an increasing number of Iranians in the diaspora to use blogs as an avenue to break free from traditional political and social constraints as well as to maintain a sense of belonging to a cultural past and common homeland." So i can only echo her admiration of "the motivation and stamina behind the works of so many Iranian bloggers who have helped create this borderless, transnational space on the Internet."

Gapminder and net censorship


I've just had a lesson in the power of visualisation. I was playing around with the Gapminder graph of life expectancy versus income per capita, and randomly picked South Africa from the country list. Playing the animation from 1980 - 2004, life expectancy rises steadily until about 1994, after which it drops like a stone! Dramatic stuff - all sorts of questions and vaguely remembered news reports flooded in to my mind - "what the hell is going on over there?!".

 I think it would be really great to make such powerful visualisations about internet censorship, and an ideal opportunity would be to feed the data from the OpenNet Initiative's forthcoming global survey of internet censorship. My main interest is to drive awareness and campaigning against the growing encroachment of online filtering, and the risk that the internet will fracture in to an archipeligo of censored national enclosures. However, there's a direct link to the primary concerns of Gapminder's founder Hans Rosling i.e. global health and human development. Many organisations now see unrestricted access to the internet as a key aspect of development. (This really came home to me at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis where the best workshops on internet censorship & freedom of expression were organised by HiVOS). The irony in using Gapminder to campaign against net censorhsip is that the version of the tool i was playing with is the live online Gapminder provided by Google, who's other claim to fame at the moment is their participation in the Chinese authorities' censorship of the internet. The live version I'd like to see would feature net censorship by country, with a drop-down for corporate involvement, and maybe an overlay of number of arrested cyberdissidents. I wonder if Google would host it?


p.s. you can watch a webcast of Hans Rosling's Gapminder talk at the TED p.p.s I hunted through the Gapminder site for the download of their core software, Trendalyzer, but i could only find the pre-prepared Flash presentations. If anyone has any experience of using Trendalyzer, leave a comment or contact me.

my 3 minutes at NESTA Uploading

UPDATE: see this talk on YouTube (tx to Lloyd Davis.) a post of the rough notes from my 3 minute 'provocation' at today's NESTA Uploading Innovation Event.


not amnesty's official view

architecture of participation for campaigning amnesty, greenpeace, witness

disruptive innovations, bypassing and displacing

move-on, avaaz, genocide intervention network

post-deferential era people will do it anyway

youtube and human rights; wael abbas; first ever prosecutions of egyptian police for torture

ice cream flash mobs of belarus


chance social media will lead to conformity privacy invasion

google & yahoo - everything about us and our relationships

privacy backlash


you know social media is making a social difference when people start getting arrested for it

blogger kareem amer,

critical comments, protected freedom under int'l law


Internet Governance Forum - titanic clash, aggressive IPR & copyright versus Freedom of Expression

make a big difference to what innovation we can do with social media

Joichi Ito - remixing is a new form of freedom of expression


Q. how do we shape policy to optimise social media innovation?

best hope for human rights activism in C21st

not just social media for human rights, but human rights for social media

how to preserve that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity'

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

policy & law: we need more than creative commons code:

psiphon: anonymity - also spread via social networks culture:

providing a safe space for people to network and campaign c.f. hispanic kids in LA using myspace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation

maybe org not doing the campaign, but providing campaigning context provide a safe space for collaborative innovation and say to people: 'be part of the change you want to see'

Real-Time Revisionism

Apparently, there's a significant rise in Holocaust revisionism in Europe. (So, for human rights organisations, the debate is one about freedom of expression versus hate speech).

It made me think about what google.cn & other censored search engines are doing, as ably demonstrated by OpenNet Initiative's Google China Search Comparison.

I'm fascinated by how, in web terms, a censored internet can create a gaping absence in the visible history and politics of a country. So kudos to jimmy Wales for the way that Wikipedia defies China's censors. Perhaps the activities of the censoring search engines should be labelled real-time revisionism.

Google China Search Comparison - tiananmen
Google China Search Comparison - tiananmen

Fear of child abuse as a fig leaf for censorship.

One thing that really struck me at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens (see Human Rights at the Internet Governance Forum) was the way that many government and corporate representatives cited child pornography as a reason for filtering the internet. Perhaps it was quoted so much because opposition to child porn is seen as a shared global value, but i didn't like the way it was constantly invoked to symbolize the threat of the net. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows limited exceptions to freedom of expression so that things like child pornography can be dealt with. But these exceptions must go through proper legal process and be applied in a specific, proportionate and concrete way, not waved around as a general excuse for censorship.

At the IGF, Rikke Frank Jorgensen from the Danish Institute for Human Rights gave a good example of how this can become a slippery slope. Apparently the Danish police order web sites to be taken down on the basis of a phone call from the local branch of Save the Children, and these sites are added to a secret blacklist. Now, however contemptible the sites concerned, this isn't a good way to go about things - once websites are blacklisted simply because of 'common sense' and without being tested by legal process it is easy to widen the net to include any content that officials find objectionable.

I think this kind of cavalier approach to rights can become viral, especially in the online environment, as illustrated by the Personal Democracy Forum blog post Who's Molesting Who on MySpace? by Micah Sifry

"Apparently, the warrantless tactics that some prosecutors are now using to pull information off of MySpace pages to track sex offenders are now spreading to much lower level crimes. Henson discovered a thread on the Texas District and County Attorney's public user forum where a bunch of prosecutors are discussing whether it's OK to go online and create a fake profile on MySpace in order to get a kid to "friend" them and thus give them access to their private MySpace page, where they might find evidence of someone bragging about a petty crime like vandalism."

But, I hear you ask, how do we deal with all the bad stuff on the net? Firstly, human rights law makes adequate provision for dealing with truly illegal content. As for content that is objectionable, I would back the OSCE delegate at the IGF who pointed out that the presence of objectionable (as opposed to illegal) content is exactly what demonstrates the freedom of the media. There was plenty of constructive debate at the IGF in workshops like Content regulations from gender and development perspective organised by the APC Women's Networking Support Programme, where the question "should we define for children what content they can access, or rather let them decide what they want to access?" brought support for educating children about harassment on the internet and bringing their attention to some risks they need to manage, instead of censoring their version of the net. (As i remember, Danah Boyd also has some sensible stuff to say about this in relation to the Myspace scare in the USA).

I think some of the strongest challenges to triggy-happy content regulation are laid out in the intro to the APC workshop, especially the last point: "There are several problems which intersect to make content regulation in relation to 'harmful content' one of the most controversial areas for regulation and governance:

  • the definition of harmful content is contestable, subjective and open to a range of interpretations by multiple stakeholders;
  • the degree of 'success' of such controversial initiatives as 'clean-feed' and other filtering based systems, is primarily determined by the extent to which all affected stakeholders have been engaged in policy development and employment;
  • the key groups which are deemed to benefit from such systems - women and children - are largely absent from such discussions.
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