Global Voices Summit: Future of Internet Filtering

The who’s who of online political activism is here today to compare notes on their efforts to create more transparent and accountable governments across the world. Not surprisingly, the average age in the room must be late 20’s to early 30’s. A small number of prominent bloggers missing from today’s gathering weren’t able to travel to Budapest because of visa problems and/or security issues. Rob Farris, Director of Research at the Berkman Center, began the conversation by discussing the future of Internet and filtering and the role for activists in documenting filtering. The presentation is based on the new study, Access Denied: The Rise of Global Internet Filtering.

The following methods (amongst others) are used to restrict speech on the net:

  • Intellectual property law;
  • Licensing and id requirements;
  • Arrest and intimidation;
  • Filtering, monitoring and surveillance;
  • Hacking;
  • Cost, however is the biggest problem.

Somewhat surprisingly, Israel, Japan, France and Australia are four countries that are increasingly engaged in Internet censorship.

  • In China, self-censorship (censorship 2.0) is becoming more problematic than filtering.
  • In Belarus, a new law on media and extremism is presenting more barriers for free speech on the net. In Japan, mobile phone censorship is on the rise.
  • In Thailand, as in many countries with closed regimes, it is actually illegal according to their constitutions to censor the web, so they are breaking their own laws.
  • In the US, it is no longer possible to decide on censorship on a case by case basis. There is no due process since scale is a problem. It is virtually almost impossible to solve, especially with social media.
  • In Saudi Arabia, the Internet was introduced only after the regime had censorship tools in place.
  • In Turkey, YouTube is blocked since they do not have the technology to block individual clips.

One general finding is that countries that engage in one kind of filtering are increasingly engaged in other forms of filtering. One ongoing question is whether non-democratic regimes engage in regional cooperation, collusion in filtering. A challenge that continues is how we convince policy makers not to censor the web, especially since the response will be, “What about child pornography? Violence? Hate speech?” One strategy might be to go after child pornographers in a different way. Perhaps automated filtering using transparent methods might be best. Is this a battle that political activists want to fight?

YouTube now has a system to geo-locate and block clips. Is this what we want? YouTube negotiating with Thailand directly? In China, as in other countries, national alternatives to YouTube are appearing, which the state has direct control over. Is this a trend that will continue? A Balkanization of social media blocking? Rob closed his presentation by introducing Herdict, a tool (coming soon) to track filtering around the world. Ethan Zuckerman added that he hopes one of the outcomes of today’s conversation will be a strong alliance among bloggers to render more transparent government censorship of the net.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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