Transparency/accountability and Internet filtering

The fact that the Internet in China is subject to significant filtering is old news, but now users’s themselves can help out. The new website Illegal and Inappropriate Information Report Center, is run by Internet Society of China (ISC), the same people who brought you the Public Pledge of Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China Internet Industry ( signed by Yahoo!) If you want to have a website blocked just fill out a form, but make sure that the site falls into one of the categories such as “Attack party and government”, “Publicizes the cults” (e.g. Falun Gong), “Violates the common courtesy”, or “Other illegal and not good information”. (* The wording is odd because it was translated with Babelfish.) This raises serious questions concerning the transparency and accountability of Internet filtering.

China is certainly not the first country to accept blocking submissions, both Saudi Arabia and Yemen ecourage users to submit sites to be both blocked and unblocked. Others including UAE, Oman, and Qatar allow user to sumbit unblock requests. The difference in the case of China is that there is no capacity for an unblock request and the process itself is quite seperated from the filtering process.

In China users are not presented with a “block page” indicating that the site they are trying to access has been blocked. Rather, users recieve generic network error, file not found and timeout errors when trying to view content that has been filtered. There is no explicit confirmation to the user indicating whether the site is simply unavailable or that the site in question has in fact been deliberatly blocked.

Similarly, it has become known that the new filtering service (Operation Cleanfeed) to be implemented by BT (Britain’s largest wholesale and retail provider of high-speed broadband), will return generic 404 File not found error pages if users try to access filtered content.

Clive D. W. Feather, of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) and Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), explains:

IWF (will) supply BT daily with a list of URLs, which are automatically converted to a list of IP addresses. Traffic from BT customers will go via modified routers. If the IP address and port number are on the list, the packet is diverted to a modified web proxy. This proxy will return a fake 404 for URLs on the list, and will proxy in the ordinary way otherwise.

In relation to this several interesting points have emerged on the Cyber-Rights email list:

1. Why not display a “block page” to users when they access filtered content, ather than a generic 404 File not found error?

2. Will users begin to interpret all 404’s as sites that are being filtered?

3. Will BT add additional sites to the the IWF list?

The questions relate to transparency and accountability with Internet filtering, not only applicable to the BT case but to filtering products or filtering regimes that affect entire countries. Will Internet filtering be open and acknowledged or hidden from view? Will citizen’s participate and have some recourse to correct blocking errors or challenge blocking policies? Will the lists of blocked sites remain secrect, unavailable for public scrutiny? As we move towards the growing reality of increased Internet filtering should it be resisted in its totality or should concerned citizens press for at least a transparent and accountable filtering regime?

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