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.

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.

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.
  • Human Rights at the Internet Governance Forum

    I went to the first Internet Governance Forum in Athens with a certain amount of dread. Although I was happy to be heading up the Amnesty delegation, my experience at WSIS in Tunis left me with the abiding impression that most states and commercial entities would be happy to roll back rights & freedoms in the online space unless constantly pressed. However, somewhat to my amazement, human rights were a headline theme for the whole of the IGF and were raised over and over again by civil society participants. When we intervened in the Openness Session on Day 2 it triggered a debate about Internet censorship and corporate complicity in China, which was widely covered in the media. This debate included a jaw dropping moment when the head of the Chinese delegation completely denied that there was any internet censorship in China (check out the full transcipt of the debate).

    In most of the panels I attended there was a sense of confusion about how to set global standards for Internet governance when faced with various threats (security, pornography) or when states pose cultural reasons to justify censorship. Many of us pointed out that key global standards don't need to be re-invented because they are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , to which states are already committed. Many participants seemed unaware that there are limited exceptions to deal with genuine threats, as long as the exceptions are applied in a specific, proportionate and concrete way.

    I'm hoping that the internet governance processes can use the UDHR to prevent the net from becoming a collection of censored national enclosures and instead reinstate it as a protected international space for free expression and free flow of information and ideas.

    At the IGFAt the IGF

    Oh yes, and I got to hand in the petition for the irrepressible.info campaign to Nitin Desai (UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser for Internet Governance). So a big thanks to him and especially to Markus Kummer, the Executive Coordinator of the IGF, who arranged the whole thing.

    mashups on the frontline

    Dirk Voorhoof was kind enough to send me a copy of the FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION vs. COPYRIGHT presentation I blogged about earlier . This also quotes the US Supreme Court decision allowing the 2 Live Crew Parody of 'Oh pretty woman'. I remembered Joichi Ito making a comment about remixing at the Internet Governance Forum; a trawl back came up with this inspiring quote (via Intellectual Property Watch ); “Ito added that the editing of multimedia has become an essential part of social discourse in the United States, and that “being able to share and remix video and music is vital” to political debate. But he said copyright law is interfering with political commentary by preventing the use of video material. “I think we’re inhibiting an entirely new form of free speech,” he said”.
    Well, i think that nails it - all this mixing and mashing is the emergent free speech of our times.
    can dialectics break bricks?can dialectics break bricks?
    But of course, this is a mode of counter-hegemonic expression with a pedigree. As Lawrence Liang points out in the The Black and White (and Grey) of Copyright , the Situationist International were putting this in to practice in the 1960's and 70's (and he reckons they were inspired by the late romantic poet Lautréamont!)
    [Note 1] For a Human Rights geek like myself, it's doubly cool that mashups are the frontline of of expression, because I reckon that technology mashups are the current tech trend with the biggest potential for online activism.
    [Note 2] For a good example of a Situationist mashup (aka detournement), check out "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?" by René Viénet.

    Copyright versus Campaigning

    I caught a great presentation at the Internet Governance Forum called FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION vs. COPYRIGHT given by Dirk Voorhoof . The folk at my day job are good enough at spotting traditional censorship i.e. direct repression by governments, but one of the main things I wanted from the IGF was to sharpen up on how copyright impacts freedom of expression. Dirk's presentation hit the spot by showing how copyright is used as a tool to inhibit campaigning, by harassing groups like Greenpeace when they use something similar to a logo or brand to criticise a corporate through parody or imitation. This also seems to me a great way to get the message through to traditional campaigning NGO's that copyright is a key issue. oil logosoil logos The other great aspect of Dirk's presentation was the image he conjoured up of a titanic clash between two legal regimes, namely Intellectual Property Rights versus Human Rights. As he put it, we need to decide between "Copyright/trademark protection as a principle and freedom of expression as an exception or Freedom of expression as a principle and copyright/trademark protection as exceptions".
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