OII SDP 2007 (III): Internet Filtering

Leads: John Palfrey, Jonathan Zittrain, Rob Faris

Over the past five years, the incidence of Internet filtering has expanded from a small number of states, including China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to well over thirty countries worldwide. While Internet filtering and content restrictions continue to grow in scope, scale and sophistication, censorship of the Internet broaches many unanswered questions, touching on legal, political, economic, social and ethical issues.

Critics of filtering focus on the frequent collateral damage, the suppression of free speech as an infringement on human rights, the often tenuous legal status of filtering and the potential for negative impacts on economic and human development. For others, filtering is seen as an appropriate remedy for Internet content that is distasteful, disruptive, harmful or illegal.

The influence of Internet censorship on democratic processes, access to information and technological growth is complex. It undoubtedly has huge implications for how connected citizens will be to the events unfolding around them, to their own cultures, and to other cultures and shared knowledge around the world. At the same time, filtering practices raise questions about how citizens relate to the states in which they live – states that are ordinarily neither transparent about how these filtering regimes work nor accountable for the problems inherent in the way they are carried out today.

We take a look at recent trends in international filtering and put on the table a number of questions of policy and practice.

Joris van Hoboken introduces the session with a — for me — terrific question: How Internet Filtering is affecting access to knowlege?


  • Discovering what Web sites (compare with Internet) are filtered on demand or indfluence by public authorities
  • Discovering/developing means of circunvention and assessing effectiveness, e.g. Psiphon

Why test

  • Comparing Internet to traditional media: State censorship — and circumvention — is a venerable tradition; e.g. Soviet content blocking and samizdat. But, what’s different about the Internet? What’s the same? Prominent of geographic boundaries; testing “the Internet is revolutionary” hypothesis
  • Censorship is bad; human rights are good (“access to knowledge”): underscoring state filtering around the world can help reduce it; studying filtering and circumvention can assist people who want to circumvent
  • Censorship is bad when done without “due process”; too easy for state (or private parties controlling the technical means) to abuse


  • Technical enujmeration: “20 questions”: come up with a list of web sites or web URLs to test;
  • Contextual studies


  • One of the biggest challenges is the political, ethical charge of such studies, that make them no neutral. Solution is twofold: don’t do any research at all, or just disclose and put crystal clear, very transparent, what your background and your believes are, so that you don’t get cheated when reading the output data of the research results.

My reflections

  • Besides focusing on content — right to communicate, expression, etc. — if we focus on the carrier, the technology, and its socieconomical possibilities — again, besides human rights, democracy, and so on — it is possible that Internet Filtering does not only provide a means to keep voices shut, but to keep control over the international economy’s gate, such as Ancient Europe’s monopolies on naval trade.
  • Related to this question, Daithí Mac Síthigh points me to Harold Innis, and I quote Daithí (thank you!): he’s a Canadian (died 1952) who did some interesting early work on the history of communications and control; it’s very relevant for ‘new’ media. There are various elements – one is an analysis of time-based vs space-based media and the types of control it favours (“Bias of Communications”) and a more detailed, political study (“Empire and Communications”).


More info


SDP 2007 related posts (2007)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2007) “OII SDP 2007 (III): Internet Filtering” In ICTlogy, #46, July 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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