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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Is the US helping or hindering internet freedom?

Icon for censorshipImage via Wikipedia

One of the more significant changes since the Obama administration came it power is that the US is beginning to recognise the importance of the internet in struggles for freedom in many parts of the world.

This is highlighted in the State Department's latest annual report on human rights which describes 2009 as ...

"... a year in which more people gained greater access than ever before to more information about human rights through the internet, cell phones, and other forms of connective technologies. Yet at the same time it was a year in which governments spent more time, money, and attention finding regulatory and technical means to curtail freedom of expression on the internet and the flow of critical information and to infringe on the personal privacy rights of those who used these rapidly evolving technologies."

The US Treasury has now modified its sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan "to ensure that individuals in those countries can exercise their right to free speech and information to the greatest extent possible". Voice of America explains:

"US companies will now be able to legally export certain free services and software related to the exchange of personal communications over the internet, including web browsing, blogging, email, and social networking.

"US Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said, 'As recent events in Iran have shown, personal internet-based communications ... are powerful tools. This software will foster and support the free flow of information – a basic human right – for all Iranians'."

So far, so good. But American companies are also complicit in curtailing freedom on the internet. Just a few years ago, for example, they were queing up – along with others from Europe – to sell filtering software to the Saudis. ''This would be a terrific deal to win," one of them said. ''Once we sell them the product, we can't enforce how they use it,'' another said, shrugging off any responsibility for the consequences.

Now, Microsoft seems to be getting in on the censorship act too, with its Bing search engine. Research by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) has found that "users in the Arab countries – or, as termed by Microsoft, 'Arabian countries' – are prevented from conducting certain search queries in both English and Arabic."

Testing of Bing using the "Arabian countries" setting showed that various sex-related keywords, in both Arabic and English, are filtered out. Searching for these terms produces no results but a short message from Bing saying "Your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might return adult content."

ONI wonders whether that is actually true. It says:

"It is unclear ... whether Bing’s keyword filtering in the Arab countries is an initiative from Microsoft, or whether any or all of the Arab states have asked Microsoft to comply with local censorship practices or laws.

"It is interesting that Microsoft’s implementation of this type of wholesale social content censorship for the entire 'Arabian countries' region is in fact not being practised by many of the Arab government censors themselves. That is, although political filtering is widespread in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, social filtering, including keyword filtering, is not practised by all countries in MENA. ONI 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 testing and research found no evidence of social content filtering (eg, sex, nudity, and homosexuality) at the national level in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya."

The problems with this kind of "keyword" filtering are widely recognised and Microsoft really ought to know better. ONI explains:

"Microsoft’s declared aim from this type of censorship is to filter out 'results that might return adult content'. However, filtering at the keyword level results in overblocking, as banning the use of certain keywords to search for websites, not just images, prevents users from accessing – based on Microsoft’s definition of objectionable content – legitimate content such as sex education and encyclopedic information about homosexuality."
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