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Join the herd!

The Open Net Initiative, a project of the Berkman Center (my employer), Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Cambridge, has emerged as the gold standard for reporting on internet censorship around the world. With the cooperation of hundreds of researchers, ONI runs tests in dozens of countries and produces reports, usually one a year, that detail what sites are inaccessible in a particular country, and how they are blocked.

There’s one major problem with this approach – speed. When a website gets blocked in a particular country, that site’s administrator wants confirmation that her site is being blocked so she can lobby the government, or help her readers find other ways to read the site.

The folks at the Herdict project, a new effort being launched at the Berkman Center today, are interested in a different way of documenting web filtering and censorship. They’re asking users around the world to use the Herdict site or toolbar to report when they’re having trouble reaching a site. Herdict will coordinate reports and attempt to determine whether a site is being blocked by a government, an ISP or whether there’s a technical failure that’s preventing people from accessing a site.

The Herdict team offers a charming web video that explains how the tool works. I may be mistaken, but the voice of Shep the Sheep sounds suspiciously like that of Professor Jonathan Zittrain, the principal investigator behind the Herdict project.

I love the Herdict concept, though I’ve never warmed to the name, a pormanteau of “herd” and “verdict”. James Fallows offers two reasons to resist the name: “First, no one really likes to be thought of as part of a “herd.” A crowd, maybe (as in “crowdsourcing.”) Even a throng or a mob. But a herd? Second, the logo for the site includes pictures of sheep but none of cows. Cows make a herd; a group of sheep is a flock.”

He’s right, but don’t let the name keep you from joining the herd. Er, flock. It’s a cool idea, and for it to work, Herdict needs participants from around the world. Hope you’ll consider joining in.

While we’re on the subject of internet censorship, let me point you to the new manual published by the Sesawe project on circumventing internet censorship. The manual builds on existing content (including some things I’ve written) and adds original content to provide an overview of tools that can be used to evade internet censorship. It’s available under open licenses, can be downloaded and printed as a PDF, and should be a worthy companion to anyone trying to understand the world of proxies, TOR, Psiphon and other circumvention tools. Please check it out.

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