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Through a Filter, Darkly

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Suppose you live in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and look online for information about breast cancer, or you are a resident of Xi'an, China, and want to research a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Would you find what you are looking for? Not likely, according to researchers at the law school's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Last year the center launched a project to determine the level and quality of Web filtering in nations around the globe-starting with Saudi Arabia and China, believed to be among the most restrictive blocking regimes in the world. Assistant Professor Jonathan Zittrain '95, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center, notes that there is significant anecdotal evidence about the blocking of Web sites, but until now, "no one has, in any consistent way, tried to track the answer to it with any statistical significance."

After testing more than 60,000 Web sites in Saudi Arabia, the researchers concluded that, in addition to the expected filtering of sexually explicit material, the country also blocks access to sites that pertain to religion, health, education, reference, humor and entertainment. According to first-year student Ben Edelman, a Berkman Center student fellow, some of the filtering is the result of poor filtering software: "[The software] can't tell the difference between 'strippers' and 'the-strippers.com,' which takes varnish off of your old wooden furniture-there's nothing sexually explicit about that."

Of the 200,000 pages tested in China, more than 19,000 were inaccessible for significant periods of time--including sites on news and religion, and more than 3,000 pages from Taiwan. The Berkman Center researchers also established a Web site where visitors can enter the address of their favorite page and see if it is available in China. Of course, if you were actually in China, you would have no need for this page. A good thing, since the Chinese government blocked the Berkman Center site as soon as it started reporting its results.

--Michael Rodman

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