Global Internet Censorship

A new Harvard University project collects reports of internet disturbances and unreachable websites. The object is to provide a real-time map of global internet censorship.

Measures to filter the internet are again being hotly discussed around the world – whether it’s the battle against child pornography, blocking of online pirate copying, or just plain censorship by repressive governments. “Herdict,” a service inaugurated this week, was set up to put together a databank of real-time internet blockage by means of “crowdsourcing,” or in other words, based on input by internet users. The name Herdict comes from “the verdict of the herd” as it’s called on the service’s web page.

The project comes from the renowned Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and is coordinated by law professor and online rights expert Jonathan Zittrain. He hopes to put together a real-time map of blocked websites around the world that can be accessed by hundreds of thousands of internet users globally.

The internet addresses of blocked sites will be compiled along with the date it was added, the service provider, and the website’s subject and location (private or corporate). A simple click on the “test this site” button is enough for people to check whether they’re able to access the site themselves. Anonymous reports can be filed with a few simple clicks; a comparison page lists the status, displays statistics, locates blocked sites, and states how long the problem has been going on.

Herdict isn’t capable of determining whether a blockage is due to technical problems on the site, direct censorship by a government agency, court-ordered blockage, or filtering measures taken by companies or service providers. Founder Zittrain expects, however, that as the database grows, collection trends will become apparent. Internet users may already add commentary to their reports as to why they suspect a particular site has been blocked. Geofilters, which protect copyright holders and ensure that video offerings are viewable only in the country of origin, will also be included. Zittrain specifically wants the database to include content taken from the internet, such as from YouTube, for legal reasons.

Internet users who participate in the Herdict project and use the Firefox browser will have their work made easy for them. A plug-in for Firefox (an Internet Explorer version is to follow) has been set up so that just one mouse click is necessary to report an access problem. Users immediately see information for whether a site is (or was) inaccessible in their own or any other country. In this way, they hope to create a community feeling – the site’s mascot is a clever stuffed sheep who vents about his online problems in a YouTube video. According to the sheep, “With Herdict, I’m able to tell which websites are most difficult to reach and which countries have the biggest problems. So I’m now part of the herd of internet users keeping watch of how useful the internet is on a global scale.”

Herdict grew out of the “OpenNet Initiative” (ONI) in which the University of Toronto, Cambridge University, and Oxford participate along with Harvard. ONI publishes regular reports on the subject of global internet censorship. Their last report named “Access Denied” found routine internet filtering in more than 40 countries and the trend is rising. ONI scientist Rebecca MacKinnon recently researched how Chinese weblogs have been silenced with a combination of government pressure and electronic censorship. Herdict will take up where ONI left off; up to now, ONI had to depend on volunteers in the affected countries, something that became too cumbersome.

The list is still easily viewable. Thus far, just a few hundred reports have been filed, the majority from the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and China. Zittrain and his colleagues are hopeful that the project, which has only been in operation since Wednesday, will attract many more users. Zittrain isn’t afraid that Herdict itself will be blocked, because that in itself would be an admission by censors that they really took Herdict seriously, Zittrain told U.S. media sources.

In order to ensure they’re always reachable, Herdict also accepts censorship reports via alternative communications channels such as Twitter.

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