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A new book details the extent to which countries across the globe are increasingly censoring online information they find strategically, politically or culturally threatening.Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering challenges the long-standing assumption that the internet is an unfettered space where citizens from around the world can freely communicate and mobilise. In fact, the book makes it clear that the scope, scale and sophistication of net censorship are growing.

“There’s been a conventional wisdom or myth that the internet was immune from state regulation,” says Ronald Deibert, one of the book’s editors.

“What we’re finding is that states that were taking a hands-off approach to the internet for many years are now finding ways to intervene at key internet choke points, and block access to information.”

Mr. Deibert heads The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. The Lab, along with Harvard Law School, the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University, has spent the last five years testing internet access in some 40 countries.

We are starting to see something more like the China Wide Web, the Pakistan Wide Web, and the Iran Wide Web
John Palfrey, director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society

The book highlights Saudi Arabia, Iran and China as some of the most aggressive nations when it comes to net filtering. They use a variety of technical techniques to limit what their citizens can see online. But they reinforce that filtering with other methods, such as net surveillance.

“Surveillance is a huge deterrent,” says The Citizen Lab’s Nart Villeneuve. “If you talk to dissident groups in these countries, they’ll tell you that they’re under surveillance, that they’re concerned for their safety, and that it definitely influences their online behavior.”

And even as human rights and internet rights groups fight to raise awareness about internet censorship, countries such as China have responded by getting smarter in what they block, and when they block it.

‘Selectively blocking’

“We call it ‘just-in-time’ filtering,” Mr. Deibert says. “Countries are selectively blocking access to information around key events, such as demonstrations or elections. They are clamping down on the internet during times that it suits their strategic interests to do so.”

As an example of this kind of filtering, he points to China’s recent blocking of YouTube after videos of Tibetan protestors appeared on the video-sharing site.

Google protestor

Google has been criticised for working with Chinese authorities

Belarus, Cambodia and Burma have all engaged in this kind of selective censorship as well.

And then there is the case of Pakistan, which recently caused the entire YouTube service to go down worldwide for a couple of hours because of a government order to block material.

According to John Palfrey, director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Pakistan case points to certain weaknesses inherent in the very architecture of the internet.

“It was designed by a bunch of friends in essence – academics and military people – who were just creating a local network. Now, it has scaled globally.

‘Informal protocols’

“But it’s still based on some fairly informal protocols. It turns out that when one censor in one country messes around with something, he can bring down access to entire parts of the internet.”

Mr Palfrey points out that some countries are considering whether or not to bypass the World Wide Web all together by creating what amounts to their own local area networks. “We are starting to see something more like the China Wide Web, the Pakistan Wide Web, and the Iran Wide Web.”

But The Citzen Lab’s Ronald Deibert does not think the evidence points to a complete “balkanization” of the net by sovereign states.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a person in Iran experiences a much different Internet than a citizen in a country like Canada,” he says.

“But it’s not a simple equation with territorial boundaries. Maybe the best analogy is with the old Middle Ages, where you had multiple and overlapping layers of authority. I think that’s the future of the net.”

That future is being complicated by the increased use of mobile phones, PDAs and other devices to access information online. For citizens, these devices mean more ways to access the internet, and therefore more potential ways around government blocking.

But Jonathan Zittrain, chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University, says that governments are already starting to realize the potential threats from mobile devices as tools to access and spread information.

“In fact, when it comes to mobile devices,” Zittrain says, “you may see common cause among China, the United States and Europe, all of whom would like another lever they can pull that will enhance their control over the net, whether they’re looking for terrorists, subversives or political dissidents.”

“I’d hate to think that the technological advances, say, in America, turn out to be exactly the advances, wrapped in a bow, the technologies China might use to squash dissidents.”

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Internet law professor Michael Geist examines the shift from locking down content to locking down the network.

A padlock and key

ISPs are increasingly adding content filtering software to their networks

As digital technologies and the Internet began to emerge in the mid-1990s, many content companies responded by betting on the ability of technological protection measures to re-assert the control that was rapidly slipping from their grasp.

The vision of control through technology required considerable coordination – the insertion of encryption on content distributed to consumers, cooperation from electronics makers to respect the technological limitations within their products, and new legal provisions to prohibit attempts to pick the new digital locks.

A decade later, the strategy lies in tatters. Many content owners have dropped digital locks after alienating disgruntled consumers fed up with their inability to freely use their personal property.

Electronics manufacturers have similarly rebelled, frustrated at the imposition of artificial limitations that constrain their products and profitability.

To top it off, the US architect of the legal strategy last year acknowledged that the legislative initiatives to support the digital lock approach have failed.

Network police

Prof Michael Geist (Michael Geist)
Large US ISPs such as AT&T have inexplicably promised to develop new content filters on their networks.
Michael Geist

In recent months, a new strategy has begun to emerge. With the industry gradually admitting that locking down content does not work, it has now dangerously shifted toward locking down the Internet.

The Internet locks approach envisions requiring Internet service providers to install filtering and content monitoring technologies within their networks.

ISPs would then become private network police, actively monitoring for content that might infringe copyright and stopping it from reaching subscribers’ computers.

The support for locking down the Internet revives an old debate – the appropriate role and responsibility of ISPs for the activities that take place on their networks.

French filtering

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president

French president has plans for country-wide ISP filtering

As the content owners were promoting legal protection for digital locks in the 1990s, the ISPs were supporting legal frameworks that treated them as the equivalent of common carriers that transferred data across their networks without regard for the content itself.

While that approach ensured that ISPs did not take an active role in monitoring or filtering Internet-based activity, the recent move toward a two-tiered Internet – one in which the ISPs themselves dream of distinguishing between different content as a new revenue source – revived the notion that ISPs could be called upon to play a more active role in monitoring and blocking content.

With content owners frustrated at the failure of digital locks, last year they seized on this by renewing their focus on the role of the ISP. This movement has been most prominent in Europe, where last summer a Belgian court ordered an ISP to block access to a site alleged to contain copyright infringing materials.

More recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a plan that would mandate country-wide ISP filtering of copyright infringing content.

Although a similar pan-European proposal was defeated earlier this month, few believe that the issue is dead, particularly given the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s claim last Thursday that 2008 will be the year of greater ISP responsibility.

Content filtering plans have also begun to emerge in North America. Large US ISPs such as AT&T have inexplicably promised to develop new content filters on their networks and are discussing an implementation plan with content owners.

In Canada, some cultural groups are openly eyeing content filters as a mechanism to adapt Canadian content rules to the online environment, while others have expressed strong support for legal rules that force ISPs to accept heightened “responsibility” for the conduct of their subscribers.

In light of this pressure, some fear that mandatory content blocking could sneak into domestic legislation, despite the likelihood that such laws would face free speech challenges and run the risk of creating a locked-down, censored Internet.


Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at http://www.michaelgeist.ca.

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