WASHINGTON—Internet censorship around the world is becoming more pervasive and sophisticated, with government-directed content filtering documented in at least 25 countries, according to a comprehensive report to be released Friday.
Political, social and cultural content are the primary targets of censorship, along with applications such as Google Maps and the Internet phone program Skype, according to the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership of more than 50 researchers who conducted tests on Internet access in 41 countries.
The research, conducted in 2006 and early this year, identified six countries with “pervasive” filtering of political content: Burma, China, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam.
Nine countries, including China, Pakistan and Vietnam, use technology to conceal their censorship, disguising it with techniques such as flashing network error messages.
“Online censorship is growing in scale, scope and sophistication around the world, which is not surprising, given the importance of the medium,” said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
The report was conducted by groups at four universities—Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and Toronto—and covered thousands of Web sites and 120 Internet service providers.
“These tests are the first comprehensive global assessment of Internet filtering practices,” said Jonathan Zittrain, an Oxford professor.
The researchers, often local experts, faced the threat of surveillance and even arrest in Iran, Syria and other countries, said Rafal Rohozinski of Cambridge. Two researchers in Uzbekistan were briefly detained for seeking access to political sites.
To the surprise of some researchers, no filtering was found in Russia, Egypt, Algeria, Israel, or the West Bank and Gaza, even for information that might be seen as a threat to security.
“Israel and the West Bank were the most democratic locations in the Middle East” as measured by access to Internet content, said Rohozinski, who oversaw the research in the region.
The most active countries censoring social content, ranging from satire to religious debate to pornography, were in the Middle East: Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Some governments use selective or temporary filtering. Belarus blocked access to opposition and media Web sites for a week before a national election, and then removed the filtering.
South Korea’s filtering system heavily censors information about one subject: North Korea.
Researchers chose the 41 countries based on reports of filtering and surveillance. North Korea and Cuba were not included because of security concerns. The United States and most European countries were not included because filtering practices, often led by the private sector, are better known.
But many U.S. companies, including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, provide the technology that allows countries to censor the Internet. Palfrey said the report would highlight efforts by human-rights groups, online activists, investment groups and the Internet companies to negotiate a code of ethical conduct for business deals that allow these firms to operate abroad.
The companies also face the threat of congressional action. One bill now under consideration would regulate these business activities, forcing companies to report the details of their agreements with “Internet-restricting” countries. Such regulation has been vigorously opposed by industry groups.
“Governments can’t do this on their own, and these companies are caught in the crosshairs of Internet filtering,” Palfrey said.
The report found that online activists, or “hactivists,” are constantly seeking new ways to circumvent filtering and protect privacy. The OpenNet Initiative will next study government surveillance of Internet users.
As more groups and individuals gain access to the Internet and use it to communicate and organize, more governments see it as a threat and are tempted to censor it, the report found.
And censorship is becoming easier to mask, creating what the report calls a “1984” Orwellian problem: “You can’t find information that you cannot search for, as you have no way of knowing it existed in the first place.”
The OpenNet Initiative report, and information about the research and methodology, will be available today at opennet.net/.
CENSORING THE WEB
The OpenNet Initiative conducted research in 41 countries suspected of Internet censorship. In some countries, the filtering is quite limited (India); others (China, Iran) it’s extensive. The breakdown:
Evidence of filtering:
Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burma, China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yemen
No evidence of filtering:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Moldova, Nepal, Russia (based on preliminary tests), Ukraine, Venezuela, West Bank/Gaza, Zimbabwe
Source: Berkman Center for Internet & Society