Ron Deibert at ONI Conference, Oxford 18 May 2007Ron Deibert (University of Toronto’s CitizenLab) introduced the OpenNet Initiative and the various partners involved in the project. Berkman does legal, coordination; Cambridge does a lot of the technical research; Oxford does policy, conferences, and development of a distributed application; Toronto – tools, circumvention etc. Also NGOs/individuals/etc are involved. The working methods have been “technical intelligence” & “contextual research” – lists of URLs and keywords (in 20 languages). Remote probe/proxy – first attempt (i.e. based on media reports). Portable tools, in-country ‘black boxes’ are added to it.

Nart Villeneuve then took over, with more detail on how filtering actually takes place. First of all there is IP address blocking (routers or proxy), but serious overblocking problems. Indeed, this can lead to a countermovement from ‘non-political’ users (e.g. Blogspot in Pakistan). Beyond that, countries will look at DNS server modification (not to resolve particular domain names to the correct IP address – e.g. Korea resolved websites to a police page – and displayed IP address saying you are being watched!). Also URL-filtering (proxy based, or commercial – root or full path possible), ccTLD blocking (poor .il gets it a lot). Users usually given a block page in these cases. A particularly difficult case is where there is bidirectional blocking – so an illicit Google search means that your next search (even for an inoffensive term) will be blocked, as in China.

The final speaker gave a presentation on the highlights of the wonderful ONI maps. The maps cover political, social (drugs/sex/alcohol/etc), security/conflict and ‘Internet tools’. The best thing to do here is to look at the maps for yourself!

Some interesting points (not comprehensive) from the Q&A chaired by John Palfrey (which is currently in full swing):

  • US-made filtering products used in other countries, not just for pornography but also for blocking circumvention systems etc. Advocacy/non-profit is a category in filters (so blocking NGOs is just a click away)
  • Steven Murdoch (from the floor) – it’s easy to persuade a country to buy filtering software for a buzzword (China – religion, UK – child pornography) and once it’s in, it is easy to extend it.
  • Event-based filtering is becoming popular (i.e. just before an election)
  • The role of the Internet Watch in the UK is controversial (the chair wondered if anyone from BT was in the audience to discuss this from an ISP perspective – but no-one was forthcoming.
  • Ron Deibert mentioned that cellular networks are increasingly being tampered with (for content).
  • An audience member wondered if corporate filtering was being overlooked.
  • We had a very interesting discussion on ‘walled gardens’, with Zittrain trailing some of the ideas from his forthcoming “The Future Of The Internet – And How To Stop It” book (which I can’t wait for!)
  • Ethan Zuckerman spoke (from the floor) on sub-Saharan Africa – much more in the way of speculation. I.e. in Zimbabwe there’s no evidence but if you talk to people in a cybercafe that’s not what they will tell you! Additionally, as Internet penetration rises in the region, governments will start to actually bother to filter.