Human Rights and the Internet

Testimony of Nart Villeneuve at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Members’ Briefing: Human Rights and the Internet – The People’s Republic of China Wednesday, February 1, 2006.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Caucus:

On behalf of the Citizen Lab, I would like to thank the Congressional Human Rights Caucus for inviting me to speak on the issue of Human Rights and the Internet. As Director of Technical Research for the Citizen Lab I have worked extensively over recent years on the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration between the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, and the Cambridge Security Programme at Cambridge University focused on the study of Internet filtering and surveillance worldwide.

Although Internet censorship in China has received the most attention, and is the focus of the hearing today, Internet censorship is a growing trend worldwide. The OpenNet Initiative has released eight major country studies on Internet filtering and has investigated forms of Internet filtering in nearly thirty countries spanning different cultures, religions, languages, ideologies, economic systems and governments both authoritarian and democratic.

Governments around the world, much like companies, schools, libraries, and parents, are beginning to restrict access to Internet content they don’t want their citizens, employees, students, patrons and children to have access to. There are many ways, both technical and non-technical for governments to disrupt or monitor online communications. In fact, all governments do it to a certain degree with some focusing on blocking content, such as web sites, while others focus on monitoring communications, such as email. Some governments, such as the government of China, do both.

China, much like other countries, is seeking to assert information sovereignty in cyberspace through the implementation of national filtering and monitoring systems that block access to Internet content deemed undesirable and limit citizens’ ability to organize and communicate online. This Internet filtering is being implemented in a manner that lacks openness, transparency, and accountability. National filtering is generally implemented at Internet Service Providers (ISP) or at centralized gateways where connections are made to the international Internet. When connections are made to prohibited content the filtering system blocks access to the requested content and is often used in conjunction with a logging system that records the violation. In some cases countries use routers to block access to specific content while others use specific technology designed for content filtering and caching.

Although the emphasis is often placed on the technical side, national Internet filtering is best described as a matrix of control in which technological and non-technological measures intersect at different levels of access to enforce strict information control policies. While it is true that Internet censorship is not, on a technical level, always 100% effective, countries like China can and do maintain an effective censorship policy combining filtering and surveillance technology with fear, intimidation and imprisonment.

In China, the government has established a complex web of regulations for both Internet Service Providers (ISP) and Internet Content Providers (ICP). These regulations manage the delivery of Internet access as well as content within China and define the enforcement policies and mechanisms through which compliance with the regulations is achieved. Although the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) is responsible for the Internet infrastructure, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Secrets Bureau are also involved in the filtering process. While there are explicit regulations that forbid the use of the Internet to incite the “overthrow of the government or socialist system” or “promote feudal superstitions,” it is unclear which specific laws or regulations mandate the use of backbone Internet filtering. Nor is it clear how specific content is chosen to be blocked.

China deploys Internet filtering technology at the Internet backbone level, near international gateway points. Requests for blocked content are routed normally through regional networks but are blocked before the request leaves China’s backbone network and enters the international Internet. China configures these gateway routers, which are believed to be manufactured by Cisco, to block access to specific Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, domain names, and keywords that appear in Uniform Resource Locator (URL) paths. When this filtering mechanism is triggered the connection between the user in China and the external host is disrupted. This affects all manner of web traffic including browsing websites and submitting queries to search engines.

The content that China targets for filtering, which we’ve been able to empirically document through technical means, contains content related to Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, the Falun Gong movement, the Tiananmen Square crackdown, human rights organizations and foreign media, mostly U.S. Government funded news sites such as Voice of America. Although China has been shutting down domestically hosted pornographic sites, pornographic sites hosted abroad have not been systematically targeted.

This brief list is less than comprehensive as it represents the most common or obvious content areas. No country, or company for that matter, is completely open about what is specifically filtered. The filtering regime in China operates with a lack of transparency and openness. There is no public list of banned sites or keywords and no mechanism for citizens to petition to have a site unblocked. One of the measures of transparency is the behavior users observe when attempting to access filtered content. In some countries users are presented with a “block page” which informs the users that their request has been blocked. However, in China, users simply see a generic “error page” that does not indicate that the request has been blocked and simply leaves the user to wonder if the content has been censored or if there has been a common network error.

Filtering and monitoring of online communications presents a serious threat to personal privacy and public discourse online. The right to communicate freely is clearly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is currently under severe threat in China.

In addition to the backbone filtering deployed in China, Internet filtering is now occurring at multiple levels of access and filtering is increasingly being built-in to applications and web services themselves. Domestic Chinese search engines, such as Baidu and Yisou, implement their own filtering to exclude search results from websites that provide information the government considers “sensitive”. Domestic blog providers technically prohibit the posting of blog entries that contain “sensitive” key words and popular Chinese web portals have been known to remove posts from their web forums that contain “sensitive” information. This “self-regulation” is a key component of China’s overall filtering regime.

Now foreign companies eager to do business in China are implementing similar filtering systems. Microsoft’s MSN spaces has implemented filtering on their blogging service restrict users from creating posts with the words “democracy” and “freedom” in the subject line. Yahoo! and Google now filter parts of their search engines that are marketed for users in China. filters, and restricts results for sensitive terms to web pages hosted in China.

This is part of a larger phenomenon in which countries such as Burma, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan and until recently Iran, all use commercial filtering products developed by U.S. corporations. The manufacturers of these filtering products are effectively determining what content citizens in these countries can view and the block lists they sell are secret and not open to public scrutiny.

What we are witnessing is, in effect, a market failure that puts profit and market share above ethics and human rights. Companies that self-censor their services are doing so in a way that mirrors that lack of openness, transparency and accountability that is emblematic of China’s own filtering regime. These companies, like China, do not disclose what websites and keywords are being filtered. Nor have they disclosed how the list was created or came into their possession. None of these companies has so far indicated what specific law or order is being complied with.

The acquiescence to China’s censorship demands sends the message to the world that political censorship is normal and acceptable. This acts to normalize the Internet as an environment that is hostile to civil liberties, freedom of speech, and free expression. In many countries the Internet is the last frontier as all other forms of media are tightly controlled.

Even within confined, controlled spaces democratic practices can make headway. As the boundaries of information control are challenged and new locations of public debate expanded democratic practices are enhanced. While previous efforts have focused on sending information through to people in China new technologies are enabling Chinese users, who are willing to take the risk, to circumvent Internet censorship. Internet filtering alone, especially when restricted to Web–based filtering, cannot completely control a person determined to access blocked content. Filtering systems can be circumvented through the use of censorship circumvention systems and anonymous communications systems.

Furthermore, new technologies and services, such as blogging, are now enabling a two-way information flow which gives those outside of China the opportunity to listen as Chinese users express themselves online. Despite the restrictions on external content, Chinese users have begun to use the Internet to communicate and coordinate at the local level within China’s restrictive information environment.

The outcome of these emerging trends is uncertain. I remain cautiously optimistic because despite these repressive controls Chinese Internet users have proven to be resourceful and resilient. But China is certainly seeking to maintain its strict information control and companies that enable and conform to Chinese censorship policies are further confining the spaces in which China’s citizens can express themselves online.

Thank you.

Nart Villeneuve
Director of Technical Research, Citizen Lab
Munk Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto


  1. Some of the terminology used in this article is not very standardized. “National filtering”, “state filtration”, “filtering tech”, “filtering regime”, and all that. Is there a reasonable single glossary of all these terms somewhere? People studying this can’t find it if they keywords vary too much.

    [|By all means rewrite this article to use or present some such glossary]

  2. oops use this link

  3. Hi,your blog is really interesting since I am interested in issues of freedom of expression on the Internet. I read your testimony at the CHRC on Feb.01, 2006 with meticulous care. I looked at the CHRC website and I couldn’t find a transcript or a video of the hearing especially the debate section, could you please help me in finding such information? Thanks in advance!

  4. […] As I cruise the site it is apparent I might be in for one of my vice like ‘headaches’ as the site is deep in thoughtful topics such as Human Rights and the Internet […]

  5. the internet in my cauntry very bed and very slow any person he cant use the internet please i need answer this porblm

Post a comment.