Net protectors defend the global commons

October 21, 2010
Kelly Haggart
As states encroach on Internet governance around the world, IDRC is supporting a major new initiative that will investigate the impacts of Internet censorship in Asia.

For the past five years, a handful of people have been hunkered down in a small, dark room at the University of Toronto, staring into cyberspace. Deep in the basement of the Munk Centre for International Studies, public-spirited cybersleuths are helping to lift the lid on the Internet and reveal what governments and corporations are doing beneath the surface.


OpenNet Initiative

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Welcome to the Citizen Lab, the improbable hub of an ambitious collaborative effort to unearth, analyze, and publicize Internet censorship practices worldwide. John Palfrey, who heads the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, says that when he is asked where in the world the most interesting, important, cutting-edge work is being done in the field of Internet studies, he answers, without hesitation, that “it’s in a crazy little cage” in the basement of the Munk Centre.

Ron Deibert, the University of Toronto political science professor who runs the Citizen Lab, says the Internet’s early promise — to be a frontierless world of free expression and democratic communication — looks nothing like the current reality in many countries.

“We’re lucky here in Canada to have such access, but most people around the world don’t,” he says. “They access a completely different Internet that’s determined by the filters that are set up by the governments under which they live.”
Internet censorship is growing, both in scale and sophistication. When the Citizen Lab researchers began their Net detective work in 2002, they followed up reports of restrictions in half a dozen countries, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Last year, they studied 43 countries and found evidence of Internet content filtering in 26, mostly in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. This year, they are testing in 60 countries.
People tend to think of cyberspace as an ethereal realm existing somewhere in outer space, Deibert says. In reality, the Internet is a physical entity, with a very material basis in fibre-optic cables, routers, Internet exchange points, software, and hardware that can be touched and manipulated.

“Countries sat back passively at first, letting the Internet be an open, unrestricted forum,” Deibert says. “That’s not the case any more. States are quickly carving up, colonizing, and militarizing the Internet. That means they’re developing strategies to control information online.”

At the same time, the Internet is also being shaped by “hacktivists” around the world — individuals and organizations that are creating technologies and finding other ways to support access to information, freedom of expression, human rights, and democratic development online.

Casting the Net wide
The Internet watchdogs burrowed in the Citizen Lab — professors, student volunteers, and technical experts — are part of a broader effort called the OpenNet Initiative (ONI). At its core, ONI is a research partnership among four major universities, with experts at Harvard University, the University of Toronto, University of Cambridge, and Oxford University sharing various parts of the research, writing, conceptual, and policy work.
At the University of Toronto, the Citizen Lab is primarily responsible for the technical activities at the heart of the project. Its work would not be possible without the assistance of scores of field researchers around the world who run the in-country tests, and take the greatest risk.
“What we’re doing is essentially a form of forensic investigation,” Deibert says. “If we can’t get to a website in Iran, but we can in Canada, we know that something’s up that requires further investigation.
“We use a combination of technical means to gather information, or ‘interrogate’ the Internet, along with human-based sources of information. We don’t have an axe to grind. We’re using scientific methods to document what’s going on.”
One trend the ONI researchers have spotted is “mission creep.” Countries may start out targeting pornography, but once the tools are in place, the temptation grows to engage in ever more extensive filtering.
They are also seeing countries filtering less Web content overall, but zeroing in on local-language content that hits closest to home, such as websites of local independence movements or opposition parties.
A development issue

In addition to shedding light on rapidly evolving Internet censorship practices — and on the use of commercial filtering tools developed by technology companies in developed countries — ONI is helping to influence policy, and to nurture fledgling research and advocacy communities in the developing world.

Rafal Rohozinski, now an Ottawa-based consultant, has been one of ONI’s principal investigators from the outset. He led an early phase of the project that involved working closely with local partners in 15 countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
“For us, filtering is a governance and a development issue,” he says. “And, for it to be that, we need to work closely with in-country partners who monitor not just the technical status of the Internet but also the policy environment — and then, as much as possible, to take the results of the testing and analysis, and use it as a leverage point to open discussions with governments.”
They found that some countries in the region, rather than clamping down all the time, would block content only when deemed necessary — around elections or to halt an emerging protest, for instance.
But what made the CIS project really interesting, Rohozinski says, was that in addition to documenting instances of Internet filtering, “we would actually engage with policymakers behind closed doors and try to shape their decisions around things. In some cases this was successful, as in Kyrgyzstan, where we were able to make a cost-benefit-analysis argument against censorship.”

Rigorous research

ONI research results are publicized in a variety of ways. The team produces rigorous country reports and regional overviews, available on the ONI website. The country reports have also been compiled, along with further analysis, in a book to be published early next year by MIT Press (Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering).

To reach an even wider audience, ONI findings have also been synthesized and presented in a visually compelling way in an online, interactive Global Internet Filtering Map and on an information-packed poster, both of which were funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

At the December 2006 launch of psiphon, the circumvention software developed at the Citizen Lab that allows people in censored countries to access an unrestricted Web, Deibert offered a medical analogy for all this intensive scanning and analysis of the online universe. He quoted Munk Centre director Janice Stein, who had remarked: “It’s like you guys are doing an MRI of the Internet.”
A ‘deep dive’ into Asia
The ONI researchers aren’t resting on their laurels; they have too much work to do. They are now poised to take part in a major new initiative that extends their successful model of collaborative research, policy engagement, and capacity building into Asia.
“Even though we have experts and contacts in the 60 countries we’re testing in — people who run tests for us and help us understand the policy context — it’s really only a thin slice,” Deibert says. “ONI Asia will allow us what we call a ‘deep dive.’ To really understand what’s going on, we need credible, academic experts inside the countries to author their own reports and guide the research themselves.”
Asia contains some of the world’s most and least connected countries — from Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, where more than 65 percent of citizens have access to the Internet, to Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Nepal, which are among the 30 countries in the world where such rates are still below 1 percent. And the Internet in Asia is far from frontierless, with the degree of state control ranging from minimal to pervasive.
François Fortier, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa after many years with the United Nations, will direct ONI Asia. The two-year project, funded by IDRC, involves close to 20 partner organizations in 13 countries and orbits around three main components: research, policy advocacy, and networking.
“We hope to build a network of experts in the field of censorship and surveillance in Asia, building a community of practice that will be sustained beyond the project itself,” Fortier says.
Within the broad mandate of exploring censorship and surveillance practices and impacts in Asia, and bringing those to the policy world, partners will focus on what they think is most important for their respective countries, and also of most interest to their own organizations. 
Some topics will be country-specific, while others will be more regional in scope, such as a new focus for ONI on gender aspects of Internet censorship.
Increasingly, cellphones are the main communication tool in many developing countries, and even the point of entry for many to the Internet itself. The censorship and surveillance of mobile phone communications will be examined in a five-country pilot project led by the Philippine-based Foundation for Media Alternatives.
State surveillance of citizens’ Web surfing, blogging, and emailing is another topic of wide concern.
“Recent events in Burma [Myanmar] highlighted censorship,” Fortier says. “But, in my view, surveillance is even more significant in terms of social impact.” Content filtering is easier to detect, and to circumvent, he says. “Surveillance is much more scary. You don’t know what the impacts are until somebody knocks on your door.”
In some parts of the world, the knock on the door, prison, and worse, are all part of what Ron Deibert describes as “a constant cat-and-mouse game between citizens who want access to information and authorities that want to control and limit it.”
“The Internet is certainly not a democratic medium,” he says. “But we’re trying to do our part to reclaim some of that.”
Kelly Haggart is a senior writer at IDRC.
Investigating cellphone surveillance in Asia
By Alan Alegre
In the Philippines, a scandal involving an intercepted cellphone conversation between the President and top election officials caused a major political crisis when it was exposed in 2006. It spawned an impeachment case, whose impact reverberates even today.
In Cambodia, two days before the commune elections of April 2007, all SMS (short message service or text-messaging) services were suspended until the polls closed, ostensibly "to prevent last-minute party political propaganda." One effect was the partial paralysis of the countrywide election monitoring carried out by non-governmental organizations using cellphones, for which elaborate preparations had been made.
Reports from Pakistan suggest that various intelligence agencies not only keep an inventory of phone calls of certain mobile users, but also record them.
The main question is to what extent mobile telephones are also becoming an arena for censorship and surveillance. The technologies to do so are available, and the political and human-rights contexts in Asia are conducive to such practices.
As cellphone use explodes throughout the region, we want to find out how and why this occurs, initially in our five pilot countries of Bangladesh, Cambodia, South Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Alan Alegre is executive director of the Foundation for Media Alternatives in the Philippines, which is part of the ONI Asia initiative.