Internet Filtering

This morning, we’re talking about Internet Filtering and the Open Net Initiative.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, here’s my live-blogging on the one-day filtering conference (which drew upon the same research, and had some of the same speaker!); the ONI website is great (the maps made a star appearance today).

Each participant has to take a turn at introducing a speaker – today it was my turn, along with Joris van Hoboken, to be the leadoff hitter and two-hole (shuddup) for this morning’s speakers – John Palfrey, Jonathan Zittrain and Rob Faris. Joris summarised the readings (three chapters from the forthcoming Access Denied book – sorry I can’t give you a link, but the book is COMING SOON) and the questions that emerge, including methodology and the relationship with access to knowledge. He also mentioned the role of the ISP as a common carrier. I added three, general points: on in-stream filtering and the question of self-regulation vs treaty vs other (e.g. where country X interferes with the network which has an impact – whether deliberate or otherwise – on Internet use in country Y), on the role of the companies that make, provide and sell filtering software, and the overarching issue of whether domestic legislation (such as the Global Online Freedom Act) can or should be used to promote access to information – is it the defence of free speech or just cultural imperialism?

Some interesting voices from the participants:
“There’s been state censorship ever since there’s been states”
We should be more interested in the commercial censorship (such as through copyright) than that by states: “IP is the oil of the 21st century”.
Many people choose US hosts for freedom of expression reasons (but are subject to the whim of ‘abuse teams’ etc) (Aside: in Indymedia days, despite the numerous posts about the US empire etc – it was in the leadup to the Iraq war so it was particularly pointed – we were adamant that we needed to host in the US with a host lacking in a trigger-happy abuse monitoring team!)
If you control communications facilities what else are you controlling?

And some impressive points from the presentations:

  • Approach to censorship often divides into censorship is bad (expression, knowledge etc) vs censorship is bad without due process (and noting in particular the role of private actors, search engines etc in this case)
  • How do you change your research methods if the type of filtering is changing?

The presenters were particularly interested in asking how the maps and the project could be criticised (for being ‘anti’-developing world; this was my only intervention, and I argued that this was not a new debate (see Liebert’s Four Theories of the Press vs the MacBride report and NWICO), but that it was interesting that there is (as yet) no ‘alternative’ or pushback. In follow-up I argued that the current perspective was good even if its only impact was (as with ‘press freedom’ metrics to spark a debate on different types of freedom….but there were valid criticisms of the model expressed by others in the room (in our introductions, Joris and I did try to rile people up to do this, and Palfrey invited similar passive-aggression. Shyness was, on this point, not apparent).

John Palfrey summarised three interesting clusters of issues that he observed from the discussion

1 – we are conscious of history (both in terms of the ‘studies’ as well as the historical element of filtering/expression)
2 – the maps are not value-free
3 – it is difficult to do research in a fast-moving area (he paraphased Zittrain’s response as disclose, disclose, disclose – i.e. be honest and up-front about the limitations.)

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