Beyond breaking firewalls: how to fight net-censorship

Ethan Zuckerman's new piece on Worldchanging, "Internet Freedom: Beyond Circumvention," looks at the technical and social limitations of circumvention of censoring firewalls that we love so much as a tool for helping people in repressive regimes liberate themselves. It's an excellent and thought-provoking piece that raises more questions than it answers, but it points to some very meaty research problems that people who care about technology and freedom need to attend to.

- We need to shift our thinking from helping users in closed societies access blocked content to helping publishers reach all audiences. In doing so, we may gain those publishers as a valuable new set of allies as well as opening a new class of technical solutions.

- If our goal is to allow people in closed societies to access an online public sphere, or to use online tools to organize protests, we need to bring the administrators of these tools into the dialog. Secretary Clinton suggests that we make free speech part of the American brand identity - let's find ways to challenge companies to build blocking resistance into their platforms and to consider internet freedom to be a central part of their business mission. We need to address the fact that making their platforms unblockable has a cost for content hosts and that their business models currently don't reward them for providing service to these users.

- The US government should treat internet filtering - and more aggressive hacking and DDoS attacks - as a barrier to trade. The US should strongly pressure governments in open societies like Australia and France to resist the temptation to restrict internet access, as their behavior helps China and Iran make the case that their censorship is in line with international norms. And we need to fix US treasury regulations make it difficult and legally ambiguous for companies like Microsoft and projects like SourceForge to operate in closed societies. If we believe in Internet Freedom, a first step needs to be rethinking these policies so they don't hurt ordinary internet users.

Internet Freedom: Beyond Circumvention

(Image: Great Firewall of China, a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike image from chidorian's photostream)


  1. I wonder, how does Australia feel about this and is Secretary Clinton in favor of canceling ACTA?

  2. As an Australian citizen staring down the barrel of our governments net filtering plan, I wholeheartedly agree.

    However if you make the network open, then society has to take responsibility for who uses it and how. Freedom comes at a price. One that many parents for instance, aren’t willing to pay (i.e. supervising children’s Internet usage and teaching them how to stay safe).

    This is nothing new of course. Pick almost any area of life and you will find society favouring legislation to “solve” problems, rather than just stepping up to their responsibilities, so the issue of Internet filtering is hardly unique.

    1. Absolutely agree. A push to get society to take responsibility would be a welcome change, rather than the Nanny State taking control of your decisions.

      Educate and create legislation to deal with abuse or misuse of freedom as an exception – not as a rule. And hold individuals accountable, rather than take away choice.

  3. I got tired of NBC blocking all SNL videos and Youtube blocking many music videos because I’m in Germany.

    Sadly, there’s still no really fast proxy to get rid of such restrictions.

  4. If it’s about bringing ‘Internet freedom’ to the rest of the world, my worry is the US Govt will take it too literally.

    Their track record (and methods) for bringing their ‘freedom’ to the rest of the world suck. Invasions, destruction of local culture (people and infrastructures included), they appoint themselves as the Only Holders of Truth and never leave… unless they have installed their own puppet government in place. If that’s their way of bringing freedom, I fear the moment they decide to do the same with the Internet.

    I rather have a less US-centric body take charge. Nothing against Americans – just their Foreign Policy.

  5. As a last resort, I suppose we could always go back to BBS? Over, say, ham radio?

    I’m being quite serious.

  6. Each country will be on the Internet monitoring and management, and more stringent in China

  7. Let’s first keep our own government from “fixing” the “problems” with the awesome internet. While advocating freedom throughout the world is commendable, we don’t need the “genius” politicians involved in regulating the internet in any way or we will begin to find our own freedoms reduced.

    Right now companies on the internet can lose their customers overnight and some of the big ones would be more than happy to get in bed with politicians and create a more regulated controlled operating environment with more hurdles for upstarts.

    Lets not give our own rulers the opportunity of introducing coercion, regulations, corporate welfare etc. to exert more political control over the internet even if they claim noble intent.

    “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.”

    ~H. L. Mencken


  8. Don’t trust America.

    Barry is working on a blacklist to protect us from terrorists and child predators and boogeymen and space aliens and the tooth fairy. Some of these fears are less valid than others (I for one believe in the boogey man!).

    “We’re the beacon of freedom and free speech” my ass.

    We’re going to make a great firewall of america but say it’s there to combat the War on Terra.

    America has no credibility and never negotiates in good faith, don’t believe a damned thing any party in power in america says.

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