How free is the Internet?

Semi-liveblogged notes from a seminar at the Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, arranged by the  Norwegian Board of Technology. I ran out of battery towards the end, and had to leave before the final session. (On the plus side, the Nobel center has free and available wifi, which I deem a Very Good Thing indeed):

Introduction: Bente Erichsen, head of the Nobel Peace Center: Parvin Ardalan, one of the founders of the One Million Signatures initiative to protest discrimination against women, could not come as her passport has been confiscated by the Iranian government and she is not allowed to leave Iran. Ingvild Myhre, Chairman Norwegian Board of Technology: Increase in state-sponsored censorship on the Internet.

Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet Law at Oxford and founder of the Berkman Center:

Filtering the Internet is hard compared to most other networks, because of the "best-effort" routing, otherwise known as "send-and-pray". Impossible to filter in the cloud, but at the point of the ISP you can filter. Examples include geographical filtering (movie releases, newspaper articles in the US about British law cases, removing neo-nazi material from the index, videos about various things at Google Video made unavailable by the uploaders (check-box solution)). In China, Google states that due to local law, some search results are withheld. now gets the letters that Google receives with take-down notices. Microsoft implemented a filtering of their msn blogging system to satisfy the authorities (though it leaks like a sieve). This "check-box" form of filtering at the source is likely to increase. This not need to be measurable at the net itself: In Singapore, your expressions can cause you to lose our house to a defamation suit.

Much harder to measure surveillance than blockages. China has experimented with various measures. For a while, was redirected to a Chinese University search engine. Blocking access to content is a "parking ticket" offense, Various sites are blocked (drugs, pornography, religion, some political issues.) Saudi Arabia has a pretty clear filtering policy, quite open about it, not much fervor.

Filtering at the device. Access is shifting from PC to cell phone and other locked devices, and many of these new endpoints are controlled by vendors and thus open to pressure.

Many technology companies are at the horn of a dilemma here – witness Google’s dilemma going into China. Sullivan principles offers a middle way (started out with apartheid in South Africa), now written into American law (at precisely the time Sullivan repudiated them.) Are there ways to work with the government to concede to some of the restrictions while doing the ethical thing?

Many other services: Livecastr allows direct filming from cell phone, LiveLeaks, WikiLeaks, psiphon – allowing people to see Internet the way you see it. Automatic translation now at the point where it allows chatting between two speakers.

Jimbo Wales: Can Wikipedia promote free speech?

Wikipedia is a freely licensed encyclopedia written by thousands of volunteers in many languages. Now the 9th most popular website on the web. 12th most popular in Iran. How global? Follows Internet penetration, basically – large in English, only 15,000 articles in Hindi despite 280 mm speakers of Hindi.

Wikipedia in China: First block June 2-21, 2004, then September 23-27, 2004, then from October 19 2005 until now. Lately, BBC and Wikipedia in English has been unblocked, unclear why, probably Olympics. Wikipedia in Chinese has more than 170,000 articles, 12th largest of all Wikipedia. More Chinese speakers outside of China than there are Dutch people anywhere. Mistake to think of this as written outside China – the firewall is porous and of the 87 administrators, 29 are from mainland China.

Censorship in China is discreet and done at an industrial level, the aim is not at individuals. Most youngsters know how to get to Wikipedia. If you set up a mirror you will be shut down, but the Chinese authorities have avoided having sad stories about people being arrested for reading Wikipedia.

Core point: Wikipedia is free access. You can copy, modify, redistribute, redistribute modified versions, and you can do this commercially or non-commercially. Baidu redistributes Wikipedia (except the pages they censor) in China (though they put "all rights reserved" on it).

Quality? German Wikipedia compared to Brockhaus, in43 out of 50 articles, Wikipedia was the winner. Not an archive, not a dump, not a textbook. Not a place to testify about human rights abuses, but the place to document human rights abuses in a neutral way. Want to be an encyclopedia, access to knowledge should not be censored, therefore Wikipedia does not take the middle ground and refuses all kinds of censorship. Jim thinks Google does a huge mistake, but theirs is a considered decision and they are sincerely trying. As customers, we should put pressure on Google. Force Google to tell us what they are doing in China to change the policies they now have to abide by.

Every single person on the planet? Available in many languages, but many of them do not have many articles. Showed a video of Desanjo, the father of the Swahili Wikipedia, wrote day an night, recruited people, now 7000 articles. Have now started the Wikipedia Academy in Africa, will start many of them.

How do you design a space where people can engage in conversations? Make it open – like a restaurant that people want to be in.


(I didn’t catch all of this discussion, partially because I participated in it. Notes a bit jumbled, will edit later.)

How powerful is Wikipedia? JW: More powerful than we like, especially a problem with bios of living people. We have the flag "The neutrality of this article is disputed", which I wish some newspapers would adopt.

Can you have a neutral point of view on human rights? JW: You can represent something in a neutral way, representing the different views. For instance, you can be neutral on abortion, saying that according to the Catholic church, this is a sin.

Things going in the right direction? Zittrain: Hard to say, social innovations such as Wikipedia tend to overcome attempts at censorship?

(My question, which was only partially answered.)What are the power implications over time for Google and Wikipedia. Both are on the ascendant now, profitable and popular, but does there need to be a different contribution model for a more stable wikipedia, and what happens when google no longer is running at a huge profit?

Mark Kriger: What worries you about the Internet five years out, at the edge of chaos? Zittrain: At the edge of chaos is suburbia: The tame, controlled online lives where things are OK, there is no reason that one bad apple can spoil everything. Jim Wales is now working on Wikisearch, more transparent about the search ranking. You don’t have a lot of investment in your use of Google, it is easy to switch, but that is not the case with many of the other services that are out there. Some regulatory interventions would be good about giving people the right to leave and easily take their information with them.

Citing Elie Wiesel: The opposite of good is not evil but indiffernence. Do not see the Internet as a shopping mall, keep it moving.

Part II: Ce
nsorship on the Net

In the absence of Parvin Ardalan, a movie from Iran about the million signatures movement was shown. It calls for equal rights for women in terms of judicial protection, divorce, inheritance and so on. A number of women have been arrested for collecting signatures. Parvin Ardalan was one of the organizers of this movement, and she has been arrested for this and has received a 2 year suspended prison sentence. She could not come, but the actor Camilla Belsvik delivered the speech for her:

  • Internet censored in Iran, but remain the most active medium for discussion of women’s issues. It has given women power, which has upset the power balance in families and between wives and husbands, and given them a mean of entering the public sphere.
  • On the Internet, women can connect and find a place for expression about their private lives. Especially for young women, using blogs, this has been especially important. They can talk about their romantic and family relationships, power structures, violence and sexuality.  This was a revolutionary development for them.
  • Some women have attained public identities even though they write anonymously.
  • Internet came to Iran during the reconstruction area in the 1990s and became more available during the reform years starting 1997. Women’s activism has been there, but in small groups. The reform period allowed more freedom of expression, but press permissions for women were few, especially for secular women. The reform period ended, and many were shut down. Many publications then turned to the Internet, as did NGOs were women were active.
  • Issues of feminism and sexuality are taken more seriously online. Gradually, filtering and blocking has become more severe. In 2004, the Ministry of Information technology ordered the words "women" and "gender" to be filtered, with the excuse of blocking pornography.
  • A large problem is self-censorship on politically and culturally sensitive issues. Women’s rights is politically as well as culturally sensitive.
  • There is a lack of laws, meaning that much of the censorship is arbitrary and haphazard. It is normally left to the judge to decide, since there are no clear laws on what is permitted and what is not.
  • The One Millon Signatures campaign was launched in august 2006. It aims to collect one million signatures on a petition to the Iranian government asking for equal rights for women in Iran. It has done much to focus the efforts on women’s rights in Iran.
  • The changeforequality web site has been blocked more than ten times, but each time a new domain name is registered and it continues publishing. Four of the activists have been arrested, but the struggle will continue. The action can serve as a model for movements in repressed societies everywhere.

Zittrain: Comments on censorship in Iran. (dicsussion with Helge Tennøe)

Pervasive censorship in Iran, web sites have to be licensed, many topics are not allowed, such as atheism. ISPs can be held responsible for criminal content. Very precise censorship, the ISP is responsible. The government is not monolithic, there are struggles inside the government, first they were excited about broadband, then you need a license to have anything faster than 128 Kbps.

Why do they have Internet in Iran at all? Very few states explicitly rejects modernity – Cuba and North Korea are some of the very few. Most states want the economic effects of the Internet. It is rather haphazardly enforced, though. Iran filters more stuff than China, but China tries harder to filter the relatively few things they filter.

The US government has actually contracted with Anonymizer, to provide circumvention software for Iranians, and for Iranians only. Rather primitive, and filtered, of all things, for pornography (the stop word "ass" means that was filtered)

Radio Tibet – a radio in exile

Øystein Alme – started broadcasting in 1996, the Chinese have been jamming. Still the program is getting into Tibet. Øystein got involved as a backpacker many years ago, came back home and started reading up on Tibet, started Voice of Tibet. Now has fifteen employees, one in Norway, the rest is in Pakistan and India. Main channel into Tibet is shortwave radio, in China it is the Internet. Have spent a lot of time studying how to avoid Chinese jamming of frequencies, which are reserved for Voice of Tibet.

China is a repressive state, where the party dominates despite only having 6% of the population as members. (If you strip off those who are members because they need the membership to get a promotion in their job, not many remain). China has signed up to the articles on Human Rights, but break their promises with impunity.

Internet use in China is growing dramatically. China’s Internet police number 50,000, censoring made possible with foreign technology companies such as Google. One journalist, Shi Tao, got ten years for an article criticizing the government – and he was found thanks to information provided by Yahoo.

But the Internet is also the hope for change – with it we would not have the images from Tibet, for instance.

Discussion: Zittrain, Alme

Alme: Companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and others should join forces and together resist the policies of the government.

The Chinese government also use the Internet proactively, to push their point of view.

Zittrain: These companies could also offer business reasons for privacy, for instance offering encrypted accounts for business conversations.

Movie from Iran: a recording studio with bombs going off outside. During the Israeli siege of Lebanon, hit by 15000 missiles, a country of 4 million people under siege that we hear very little about. Zena el Khalil is an artist currently based in Beirut. Her blog from Beirut during the siege of Lebanon in 2006 was followed by a number of people as well as newspapers, who found it a valuable addition to official sources.

She talked about how her blog and others both changed the world’s perspective on the war and documented it: Lebanon is lacking in history since so much of it is rewritten by the warring parties. She also documented how Israeli attacks on a power plant created an ecological disaster, as oil spread as far north as Syria and even Turkey.