Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Tuesday, 25 March 2008

How the open net closed its doors

By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent, in Boston

China net cafe
China blocks many Western media websites
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 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 Citizen 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."




video and audio news
Chinese internet user on the draw of the web



SEE ALSO
BBC website 'unblocked in China'
25 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Stories China's media could not write
06 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Details emerge on YouTube block
27 Feb 08 |  Technology
Pakistan lifts the ban on YouTube
26 Feb 08 |  Technology

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific