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5/17/2007
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Internet Filtering Rises Worldwide, Study Finds

The study predicts a rise in more subtle forms of filtering, such as political Web sites made inaccessible during election periods.

Internet censorship is on the rise around the world, according to a year-long global survey by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) to be released at a conference in the Oxford, England, on Friday.

"Online censorship is growing in scale, scope, and sophistication around the world," said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a professor at Harvard Law School, in a statement. "The regulation of the Internet has continued to grow over time -- not surprising, given the importance of the medium. As Internet censorship and surveillance grow, there's reason to worry about the implications of these trends for human rights, political activism, and economic development around the world."

As if to prove that point, Google Korea said Thursday that it would introduce an age-verification system later this year to block adult-oriented searches for users 18 and under. The ONI study found that "South Korea's filtering efforts are very narrow in scope, but heavily censor one topic, North Korea."

The ONI is a partnership between universities in Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, and Toronto, and is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The organization's study found that 25 out of 41 countries surveyed showed evidence of Internet filtering. Unsurprisingly, countries such as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia filter a wide variety of topics, as well as content related to those topics.

Burma, China, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam were found to engage in politically motivated filtering.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia were found to practice "substantial social content filtering."

Burma, China, Iran, Pakistan and South Korea were found to filter Web sites associated with extremism and separatism for national security reasons.

A number of countries showed no signs of official filtering: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, West Bank and Gaza, Malaysia, Nepal, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Russia also appears to refrain from government-directed filtering, though the survey results are inconclusive because of the limited number of Moscow ISPs tested.

In a conference call, Rafal Rohozinski, a research fellow in the Cambridge Security Programme and the director of Cambridge's Advanced Network Research Group, described the study as "an interesting model for how networked intelligence can gather intelligence on networks" that was focused on "state-sponsored filtering occurring at the backbone level."

"We found more filtering than we expected," said Rohozinski.

Filtering in the North America and Europe was not tested because the filtering that occurs tends to be done at the behest of the private sector.

The study predicts a rise in more subtle forms of filtering, such as political Web sites made inaccessible during election periods.

The study is based on about 200,000 observations taken from Web sites hosted by 120 different ISPs around the world. Cuba and North Korea were not included as a matter of safety.

"The bad news here is that very few countries seem to have a policy mechanism where people can have a say [in what gets filtered]," said Rohozinski. "The good news is that many countries still continue to subscribe to an open Internet. This for us is encouraging that the marketplace of ideas still seems to be favored over a regulatory path."

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