Open Net Initiative exposes online political pressure

OTTAWA — Canadians who assume that the Internet is a homogeneous source of information and communications for all the world to share need to understand that politics keep it from becoming a universally accessible medium, according to the results of a research project released this week.

“What we have now is completely different than what we started out with 10-20 years ago, where people used to have these wonderful notions of seamless networks,” explained Ronald Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab in the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. “The Internet today is network of filters. It’s a much different Internet for someone in Thailand than it is in Iran, in China, and in Canada. We’re losing that global commons of information.”

Deibert’s conclusion is among the results of the Open Net Initiative (ONI), an international endeavor that has been examining the way various countries attempt to control the Internet. Depending on the political will and technical resources of local authorities, such control ranges from clumsy attempts at blocking undesirable Web sites to far more subtle methods of masking this kind of censorship or even downgrading the connection of users who attempt to reach those sites.

According to Deibert, uncovering these activities is an enormous task. It calls for insight into the particular social and cultural values that go into making Internet content “undesirable” in some parts of the world, as well as the technical skills to analyze the way in which this content is being denied to network users. This also involves a significant measure of old-fashioned detective work, he said, with individuals within each country poring through thousands of Web sites for the sometimes risky business of testing the limits of their Internet access.

The ONI began these efforts in 2002, with funding from the Open Society Institute, which was created by philanthropist and financier George Soros. Three other universities are participating with U of T — Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford — and Deibert was joined by colleagues from Canada, the US and the UK to describe their progress.

For Robert Faris, who manages such work through the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, this kind of graphic representation is the first step toward revealing the complex links between a country’s economic growth and the limitations imposed on information and communications technology within that country.

“The policies which governments use around the world in promoting or inhibiting the growth of the Internet as a medium for sharing ideas and creating communities is, we believe, a critical aspect of economic development,” he said, adding that this factor could also determine which countries will manage to improve their standard of living.

Faris admitted that making such a connection will prove difficult. The ONI has just completed reports on 12 countries, with findings that have even been able to draw the attention of U.S. Congressional committees. With new funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the researchers are now setting their sights on 40 more countries, as well as producing annual updates in the form of books.

The first of those books is due to be published next spring, and while it should increase awareness of the extent of Internet censorship, Rafal Rohozinski of Cambridge University’s Advanced Network Research Group warned that it is essential to communicate these technological issues in language that can be generally understood.

“Until non-technical communities are able to appropriate these issues as their own, an awful lot of policy will be happening by default, simply out of sheer ignorance,” he said.

Rohozinski also argued that much of the public policy surrounding the Internet is little more than a polite fiction for many authoritarian regimes, which regard cyberspace as a territory they want to police as rigidly as they do their physical borders. And however much this outlook might sound like part of a William Gibson novel, he insisted, it reflects the extent of online global governance.

“There are no rules, because there’s too many actors with vested interests to establish global norms for the global commons,” he said, offering an example of just how dangerous it can be for ONI participants even to explore this subject.

“In Uzbekistan, we’ve lost two people,” he added. “One of our advocates had his eyes pulled out by a screwdriver in a parking lot, another one was found dead by suicide, except that he was shot two times in the head.”

The ONI findings were presented at the headquarters of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, which has sponsored specific ONI undertakings, including the production of a world map showing the geographic distribution of Internet censorship.

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