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Global Voices Summit: The Open Net Initiative and internet censorship

We’re off and running at the Global Voices Summit in Budapest, Hungary. Depending on how you’re counting, this is a two day or a five day meeting. Two days of the meeting – tomorrow and Saturday – are open to the general public and will be a conversation first on free speech online, then on citien media around the globe. As a precursor to our conversation on internet filtering, we’re doing a one-day workshop today on free speech online. In our conference room, we’ve got an amazing cross-section of free speech activists in censored nations – several people introduce themselves by talking about their banned websites, or the prison sentences they’ve served due to their online speech.

(Some of my colleages are using a tool called Cover It Live to liveblog the event. Please check out their coverage as well for real-time updates on the conversation.)

The speakers at today’s workshop are experts on different aspects of internet filtering – we’re asking people to give a presentation and to spark discussion with the crowd here. My friend and colleague Rob Faris, the research director for the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, leads off today with an overview of the work of the Open Net Initiative, a four-university project that studies technical filtering of the Internet around the world.

Rob first points out that there are a number of strategies for filtering the Internet, not all of which involve technical means. Government-based filtering can include:

– copyright and intellectual property restrictions that restrict online speech
– registration, licensing and ID requirements that discourage and chill online speech
– liability for defamation that chill certain types of speech
– arrest and intimidation of onine authors
– filtering of search results to hide dissenting speech
– indirect censorship via denial of service attacks and hacking
– monitoring and surveillance of networks, which causes a chilling effect
– technical filtering, blocking specific websites from users in a country

It’s important to remember that the bigget impediment to free speech is lack of access or the expense of access. If people can’t afford to be online, or can’t find ways to be online, they’ve been effectively silenced and prevented from accessing key pieces of information online.

ONI distinguishes between four times of filtering – policial (blocking opposition websites or independent news websites), social (blocking pornography, gambling or alcohol/drug websites), security (blocking websites used by separatist, violent or terrorist movements), and internet tools (tools used for internet circumvention, like Tor or proxy servers.) There are at least two other topics worth adding to this list: blocking of mobile content (which ONI is not currently studying) and blocking of social media sites (which we study and map at Global Voices Advocacy).

As we look at filtering around the world, there are open questions about whether governments are cooperating with one another to filter the internet. ONI researchers in the middle east point out that there’s an emerging unified set of standards agreed to by some Arab information ministers for filtering satellite television. Our colleagues believe that we’ll next be seeing a discussion on common standards for internet filtering, possibly on the agenda of the next meeting of the information ministers. It’s easier for the Middle East to agree on filtering standards, given a common language and some common issues. While there’s a great deal of conversation about China exporting its powerful filtering tools, it’s not clear this is actually taking place. If anything, a major exporter of web censorship is the US, where companies produce and market tools like SmartFilter that are commonly used to filter the net on a national basis.

Rob Faris offers some interesting provocations, wondering whether there are better and worse ways to filter the net. He points out that some filtering efforts are simply ineffective – when Sweden blocked the website Pirate Bay, traffic to the site actually increased due to publicity to the site. Rob argues that we’d like to see filtering that is transparent, specific, subject to judicial review and due process. But this raises another issue – should we allow people to make the argument that there’s a right way to filter? (I’ve argued in the past that Saudi Arabia, which is quite transparent about net filtering, is a better way to filter than non-transparent regimes like Tunisia’s.)

Rob points out that arguments about net filtering always bump up against three issues: child pornography, violence and hate speech. Should we be arguing that governments can’t block these kinds of speech? This opens a wide and challenging conversation:

– Elijah Zarwan wonders whether we actually want to argue for a fully open internet. Perhaps it’s okay that these types of content are blocked, transparently. Are we locked to a libertarian idea that opposes all content restriction?

– Robert Guerra points out that there are proposals at the ICANN level to ban certain top-level domain names based on possible offense or inappropriateness. These debates over censorship can go to the highest levels of the internet administration.

– Danny O’Brien of EFF points to a possible alliance between free speech advocates and copyfighters who are trying to prevent networks from being locked down to prevent the spread of copyrighted materials.

– An activist from Singapore points to the importance of net filtering in large nations to people in smaller nations – the policies that large nations adopt often influence the policies of smaller nations.

– Rob points out that Saudi Arabia didn’t allow the internet until they were able to filter it – is there a sense in which filtering is advantageous if it gives us access we otherwise would not have had? Would Turkey be better of if they could filter only some videos rather than all of YouTube?

Rob ends with a challenge – as we think about filtering, we need to think about long and short term approaches. The sorts of circumvention approaches Global Voices generally advocates are short term solutions – what’s the long-term strategy towards building a movement?