ONI: International Responses to Internet Filtering (workshop)

Here I am at the second workshop of the day, on international responses to Internet filtering. About 30 (very engaged) people, chaired by John Palfrey (who is also blogging this – there’s multitasking).

Avon Edward Foote wondered if there was support at the table for an approach that varies expectation according to FoE history. I.e. an algorithm / benchmarks, because expectations have to match up with form of government.

From this we led to discussing ‘Internet exceptionalism’ and definitions of freedom of expression. My contribution was on how we can reject pure exceptionalism but need to recognise that there can be different points of control and different configurations to the system. (It’s close to – and I alluded to – the ideas I discussed in my Harold Innis paper on monopolies of knowledge and how the arguments remain similar, but the tools and methods – whether legal or technical – can vary).

From this the group went on to consider different methods of engagement:

Formal – treaty, national legislation (Global Online Freedom Act – disallowing US companies from doing certain things) or governments. NGO/IGO-type response, applying pressure, litigation, activity before IGF (this being a good example of a ‘new forum’ for freedom of expression/media discussion.).

Put technologies in the hands of activists (giving them ‘west coast code’ responses).

Twitter (get an activist to update it frequently, keep doing it until something happens – then (obviously) the feed stops and you know that something is wrong!) – this is a fascinating suggestion.

Developing a new treaty is very slow.

Rhetorical action – one of the reasons why states want Internet is economic development, can this be tied to freedom of expression?

John Palfrey: “Learn from the network that we are studying”

Very important to communicate with activists on why discussing filtering is important to them.

A speaker proposed ongoing professional monitoring of Internet filtering – in response another person said that this sort of international organisation should not just monitor but should also be doing some advocacy. Palfrey mentioned the Citizen Media Law Center. A BBC employee drew attention to the World Service Trust’s survey of ‘media development’ in sub-Saharan Africa and how it would pick up some of these issues.

Forum at UN level to bring together ISPs, Internet Regulators – the IGF, chartered by WSIS – can approach the debate in a different way.

Michael Hull (U of T) made a very interesting contribution included how American citizens (ordinary people) love the idea of ‘freedom’ and therefore are very interested (e.g. in Psiphon etc), more so than anywhere else. You can appeal at a rhetorical level (coupled with ‘help your friends and family’). Give people something to do about the problem and you’ll see something happen. (An Amnesty speaker added more information on the importance of diasporic communities, e.g. people who go to work in Silicon Valley try to support the development of online community ‘back home’ and realise the problems).

One of the roles of ONI is to get information out there so that others can work on it – i.e. not to be totally imperialist about it and preaching from the West, but providing information that others (in all parts of the world) can build on!

The Psiphon team got some interesting responses from filtering companies asking to be exempted from the workaround (and were told where to go) – in fact, this was more prevalent than complaints from governments by far!

Some discussion on data and methodology for monitoring filtering broke out. “High-impact URLs” are collected; note the box on new ONI site to test/submit URLs. One of the biggest problems is how to stop governments using ‘lists of blocked URLs’ as easy methods to create their own lists. Evgeny from Translations Online gave the great suggestion of a real-time map or graph (visualisations) of filtering and blocking (both sites and locations). Apparently the ONI has always wanted this, still working on it. (One of the first Berkman projects was a Chinese proxy where you could see for yourself what is blocked…it was popular, but it’s not the most reliable).

A speaker from Amnesty gave some points on how ‘web 2.0’ etc has human rights uses that were not designed in – so we need be aware of how ‘other’ things can be used to get around filtering…

And we’re done, with Palfrey mentioning that the results of the ONI work are leading today’s International Herald Tribune.

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