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)