Digital Pathways to Asia, continued

Fisher points out that China is particularly fertile ground for a DMX pilot project because of the comparative flexibility of the group of rising innovative entrepreneurs there. “[They] have been developing with great speed China’s Internet systems and experimenting with various business models there. We met with many of them, and they are very impressive,” he said on his return from Beijing recently.

While Fisher couldn’t reveal any of the confidential conversations he’d had during his trip, he was able to say that “just about everyone with whom we discussed the general plan was, once they understood it, very enthusiastic about it as a solution for the logjam in China right now—in which basically no one is getting paid. But many of our official partners also emphasized the difficulties of engineering this solution because so many people have to agree simultaneously. I would say there’s a decent chance that it will work, but not certain.”

The filtering challenge

illustration

John Hersey

One of the Berkman Center’s missions is to promote a more open version of the Internet. To that end, the OpenNet Initiative, a joint project among the University of Toronto, Cambridge University, Oxford University and HLS, supported by grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute, among others, has studied about a dozen countries, many in Central and East Asia, revealing their extensive use of filtering methods to limit their citizens’ access to content online.

“The really essential issue involves these questions of how is control being exercised by states on the Internet, how is that changing over time, and what are the policy and legal ramifications of it,” Palfrey said. “The answers to those questions can help figure out how if at all we are going to govern the Internet. People like [HLS Professor] Jack Goldsmith have done some of the leading work in defining how states participate in that control, and we seek to amplify that work.” Sections of Goldsmith’s new book, “Who Controls the Internet?” [see sidebar], rely on data drawn from OpenNet’s research in Asia, exactly the kind of cross-disciplinary application that Palfrey and his Berkman colleagues hope to foster.

This year, OpenNet has received another MacArthur grant, $3 million over four years, to expand its research into three dozen countries (Internet filtering is not a problem just in Asia) and to publish an annual roundup of the state of Internet access worldwide. The new grant will also be used to develop applications to make the data accessible in many different forms—enabling researchers to render, slice and dice the numbers as needed for their own projects.

“By expanding across different states and across time,” Palfrey said, “we will be able to do much better comparative work, to better judge what the trends are and better inform foreign policy-makers and others who are involved with countries who are filtering.” And the center will itself be able to do more ambitious analytical work: comparing one state to another, showing changes over time, and tracing the effects of legal, political and technical changes.

Palfrey and his colleagues and students have already identified some disturbing trends. Censorship is becoming more extensive and more sophisticated. Countries like China that already do online filtering and surveillance are getting better at it, while countries that didn’t filter have begun to do so.

Another trend—which has involved some American companies—is the increased extent to which states are relying on private actors to carry out censorship and surveillance. One of the more efficient ways to filter Internet content and watch its users is through the service providers, search engines and cyber cafés—private companies that can be subjected to pressures from the states in which they operate. (Representatives of Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco and Google came before Congress recently to explain how they are participating in Internet filtering and surveillance in China.)

In light of this development, Palfrey and Berkman Center Co-director and Visiting Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95 have been working on creating a set of ethical principles that could guide the actions of U.S. corporations doing business in repressive regimes. And OpenNet continues investigating allegations of filtering in new countries (Thailand, for example) and making sure research methodologies keep step with the ever more ingenious methods of filtering and surveillance.

Global voices

Amid the statistics on censorship and surveillance, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that even a filtered Internet provides vastly greater opportunities for freedom of expression than no Internet at all. Founded by Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman and former CNN Beijing and Tokyo Bureau Chief and current Berkman Fellow Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices Online amplifies the words of people who are speaking out online, many of them in Asia, and helps them reach a broader audience through its blog (www.globalvoicesonline.org), which compiles and distills entries from blogs around the world.

The idea for the project grew out of an international bloggers’ meeting held at Harvard in December 2004. Since then, the Berkman Center has sponsored a 2005 conference in London, and it plans another this December in India. In China, for example, Global Voices has fostered contacts among Berkman scholars, bloggers, Internet technologists, dissidents and others interested in citizens’ media.

But there is a fear that Global Voices could make some unwanted connections for bloggers, focusing government attention on their activities. Hao Wu, a Beijing-based independent filmmaker who had been a core contributor to Global Voices Online and was serving as its Northeast Asia editor, was detained in February—and as of this writing was still being held without charges. He was making a documentary film about underground Christian churches that are not recognized by the Chinese government. Meanwhile, “Free Hao Wu” appeals have begun circulating online, one at www.ethanzuckerman.com/haowu/, featuring posts from his sister and a roundup of the stories about him picked up by mainstream media.

The OpenNet Initiative raises similar concerns. “We’ve been quite worried that if we test sites that [the governments] turn out not to be blocking, and we say, ‘Hey, they’re not blocking these sensitive sites on X issue,’ they’ll turn around and start blocking them,” said Palfrey. “We also worry that by highlighting the censorship and surveillance approach of some states, we may lead other states to copy that approach.”

While it’s difficult to calculate the effects of Global Voices’ efforts to amplify dissenting views, or of OpenNet’s revelations about censorship and surveillance in repressive regimes, Alford points to the larger picture. “I think it’s good that the people at the Berkman Center are pushing these things—demonstrating empirically what the Chinese government is doing,” he said. “Even if the government’s response is to try harder to censor more, there’s a huge political cost in its doing so, as the censorship does damage to the image the Chinese government would like to project.”

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See also:
Who controls the Internet?
There isn’t as much freedom as you may think.


Next: The rivals