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    Friday, 18 May 2007

    Global Internet Filtering and Censorship - new research

    Thank goodness for the geeks. The OpenNet initiative has launched its new site and research findings and offers a huge and unrivalled new resource for the understanding of global internet blocking. The multimillion dollar, 5 year research project was launched in Oxford Friday.

    The tools available to governments that want to block politically or otherwise oppositional sites are sophisticated, growing and widely available. Many of them are provided by commercial software companies based in the US. Now we know a bit more about how some of them are used, and the OpenNet site is much improved, complete with a mechanism for testing if your site is blocked.

    The OpenNet Initiative researchers are rightly careful not to offer too many instructions on how countries can censor the internet, but blocking IP addresses, tampering with the Domain Name Server, and many other means are clearly in widespread use at various points in the network at the ISP level, in corporate nets and even international exchanges. One interesting discussion was the alignment between law and the blocking action. In some cases sites are blocked legally in terms of domestic law and with a relatively transparent process (but not of course a transparent list of blocked sites). In others rule of law is an irrelevance and it appears that block lists are provided by the executive branch of government with neither transparency nor due process. This raises some difficult issues of strategy for the project.

    Another key issue is the role of private actors. A good deal of internet blocking is done by providing an ISP or a search provider with a block list, or even a general set of values and orientations. At what point it is clearly the action of states and at what point the action of private companies can be difficult to pinpoint. And this raises interesting issues in terms of international law and standards on freedom of expression. Blocking by states clearly contravenes article 19 of the UN Declaration and Art. 10 of ECHR. But at what point does apparently ‘voluntary’ action by ISPs and other gatekeepers appear as private action and therefore more difficult to frame in terms of freedom of expression.

    Moving testimony of individuals from Bahrain, Iran, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia, (one of whom is due in court to defend his website Monday) but no one speaking from China.
    Google were on the defensive. in Chinese is available, but access to it is restricted by the Chinese authorities and sites comply with the Chinese ISP code. Following controversy in 2006 and US Congressional Hearings on the issue, practical work is going on in the background to develop a code of conduct for software companies operating in countries where privacy and freedom of expression create challenges. Google, Yahoo, Vodafone, TeliaSonera and Microsoft have all experienced a lot of problems with their attempts to enter key emrging markets such as China. As a result these and other players are developing a code of conduct which is due before the end of the year. (The code will be out for consultation soon, apparently).

    This was a fertile forum and gives the OpenNet nerds some food for thought. Should they be doing more in the next wave countries for the internet? Should OpenNet be just about reporting and measuring blocking or should it get involved with Human Rights orgainsations and discourses – and with the ongoing attempts to develop CSR and self-regulation in this field?

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