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.