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Internet filtering – it cuts both ways

John Palfrey, international man of mystery and director of the Berkman Center (i.e., my boss), has a good post on the Open Net Initiative’s latest academic report on internet filtering in the United Arab Emirates. Using a technique pioneered at Berkman, ONI tried to access a list of 8700 potentially controversial URLs from within UAE and discovered that 15% were blocked, a much higher ratio of blocking than even in well-known censorious states like China or Saudi Arabia. UAE blocks every site emerging from Israel’s top level domain, as well as a wide swath of gambling, pornography, drug and religious sites. John points out that this net blocking is ironic, given UAE’s attempts to position itself as a modern business capital and a center for global commerce.

Berkman and ONI’s research has focused on government filtering efforts, where governments, like that of UAE, force state-owned or controlled ISPs to block access to sites in other nations. I’m becoming increasingly interested in filtering that operates in the other direction: websites in the US or Europe blocking access to users from certain countries due to security concerns. I had coffee with a friend who’s currently working in Macedonia – he pointed out that a number of corporate websites in the US – including web hosting companies, ecommerce sites and domain name registrars – have blocked Macedonian IP addresses. Blacklists are circulating that allow hosts to block “potentially dangerous” IPs and, allegedly, reduce instances of online fraud. My friend reports that Macedonia is no longer in Versign’s top quartile of Internet fraudsters, primarily because so many sites are blocking Macedonian IPs. (The US, on the other hand, is, as are Romania and Vietnam).

CDeliso, writing for Balkanalysis, has an angry reaction to such net blocking, arguing that other “Wild East” nations – notably Russia and Israel – were far more fraud-prone than Macedonia, and that the nation was being unfairly singled out.

It’s likely that web services companies feel more comfortable blocking a small nation like Macedonia, which has very few web users, than an economic powerhouse like Israel or a vast nation like Russia. (Here’s a charmingly racist example of a small business willing to write off countries like Macedonia.)

John Palfrey and others have been arguing for the need for an “accountable internet”, configured to prevent certain types of behavior (sending large volumes of email, for instance), unless a user is “trusted” through one sort or another of verification process. While such plans seem to contradict some of the wisdom underlying the creation of the Internet (dumb networks, the end-to-end principle, edge-based strategies), John and others have argued that some form of Internet accountability is neccesary to prevent governments from putting ill-considered and destructive constraints on how the Internet works.

The free market moves faster that national governments, and private companies are already working to balkanize the Internet by declaring parts of it “unsafe zones”. (Yes, the Macedonia/”balkanize” pun was intended. No, this is not an apology.) This form of blocking is harder to fight than government action – it’s hard to know what leverage either the Macedonians, or open net advocates, have over companies that have decided that it’s fiscally worthwhile to close their doors to certain nations.

I’ve noticed that I can’t use most of my credit cards in Africa, especially West Africa, without getting panicked phonecalls from my card issuers. (Props to American Express, which has evidently figured out that I work in West Africa and that charging a hotel room in Accra doesn’t mean that someone’s committing fraud with my card.) At least I’m able to buy things with cash in Accra after Visa has decided that it’s too risky for me to use my credit card. Users of some domain name registrars, for instance, in “risky nations” don’t have the same recourse and policies like this cause some areas of the Internet to be wholly disconnected from each other. This is a dangerous trend, and I hope some of my Berkman colleagues will consider taking a look at this type of Internet filtering.