This is the second of four posts resulting from an interview with Nart Villeneuve, principle investigator of the Citizen Lab report “Breaching Trust”.
After discussing the report itself and some of the follow up activity, we went on to talk about The Citizen Lab, its mission and its activities. From their own website they are “focusing on advanced research and development at the intersection of digital media and world civic politics”. Nart described their activity as research on the politics of technology.
Under the leadership of Professor Ronald Diebert, their activities are carried out by graduate students with an undergraduate degree in either computer science or political science who join the lab to build up expertise in the other discipline while carrying out their research. They explore issues using their strong understanding of technology to “lift the hood” behind various politically and/or economically motivated intervention of web-based information exchange by governments and other agencies.
Assisted by a worldwide network of volunteers and a check list of relevant websites, they can develop a sense of the content that governments are censoring. According to Nart, all governments do some form of surveillance but definitely not to equal levels of resulting actions. At one extreme one finds outright blocking of content but the UAE has economic motivation to block Skype to protect a local communications monopoly. Apparently the Saudis are most interested in blocking porn. China obviously allows “uncensored” content to pass through but we are aware that Skype Journal is often blocked.
They will look at filtering techniques used by various countries, the type of content being blocked and try to determine the “local” government’s policy environment in which filtering is taking place. At this point in time most filtering addresses websites but gradually some countries are moving into screening applications (as we have seen with TOM-Skype). There is also “social filtering” censorship activity that involves blocking of porn, drugs and gambling.
At this point companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, are modifying their products to address various “local” issues. For instance, Google has modified their process for enquiries from designated countries to “pre-filter” results delivered from their own servers in the U.S.. But then they put out a notification for “filtered” results with the wording for some search results: “to comply with local law, some results are not displayed”. On the other hand Google will not offer GMail accounts with a “.cn” domain name and does not make Blogger available in China.
The Citizen Lab also participates in a broader effort to develop guidelines for Internet companies operating in China. But, given that has much broader implications, it will be the subject of another post.
Next post: Answers to Phil’s Questions