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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Site tracks world online censorship reports

August 7, 2009

August 6, 2009
BOSTON (AP) - When Shanghai blogger Isaac Mao
tried to watch a YouTube clip of Chinese police
beating Tibetans, all he got was an error message.

Mao thought the error - just after the one-year
anniversary of a crackdown on Tibetan protesters
in China - was too suspicious to be coincidental,
so he reported it on a new Harvard-based Web site
that tracks online censorship.

Meanwhile, more than 100 other people in China
did the same thing. The spike in reports on in March pointed to government
interference rather than a run-of-the-mill
technical glitch, even before Google Inc.
confirmed China was blocking its YouTube video-sharing site.

"We saw reports coming in as soon as the blocks
were happening and certainly before any of the
media were reporting it," Herdict founder
Jonathan Zittrain said of the months-long YouTube
blackout that coincided with the 20th anniversary
of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June
and recent ethnic riots in the Xinjiang province.

Herdict users report their Web site problems
anonymously - numeric Internet addresses are
recorded but only general location is displayed -
so people can post more freely, encouraging
reports about sensitive topics like HIV and
AIDS-related sites, and from people in countries
with possible government repercussions.

The site doesn't investigate reports, though, so
there's no way to know for sure that an outage is
related to government meddling rather than a cut
cable or other problem unrelated to censorship.
Although surges in reports do suggest a
government role, a widespread technical glitch
can also produce a similar spike.

Web site inaccessibility can also result from
network or server errors, firewalls at schools or
offices or a new phenomenon called reverse
filtering, in which companies block access to
copyright-protected material outside a specific country.

Zittrain, law professor and co-founder of
Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and
Society, said Herdict does not aim to present a
flawless picture of online filtering, but to let
patterns of accessibility speak for themselves.

"The goal ... is to gather the kind of raw data
from which people can then start to gain insight
and come to conclusions," he said. "With enough
people asking, you start to get a sense of where
there are blockages in the network."

Herdict - short for "verdict of the herd" - has
spread beyond techie circles to garner users in
more than 140 countries, including censorship hotbeds China and Iran.

"Herdict has been buzzed (about) for months in
China and now it's becoming more popular since
... was blocked for hours and was blocked twice recently," Mao said in an e-mail.

In Iran, Herdict users have logged unsuccessful
attempts to access Twitter and other
social-networking sites that have been blocked
since the country's controversial June 12 presidential election.

Herdict users like that the site fosters a sense
of community among those who can't fully navigate
the Web and provides them with hope for a freer Internet.

"It gives people a sense how many people share
the same blackout regionally or globally," Mao said. "You are not alone."

Before, someone might complain about a block via
a single Facebook or Twitter update, but that
information often doesn't go beyond a small group of friends.

Zittrain started Herdict in February - a month
before China's block began - to aggregate reports
of online inaccessibility and help users detect
government censorship on the Web as soon as it
happens. Having tracked online censorship since
the early 2000s, he wanted to put Web
accessibility at the fingertips of those who use
it most, rather than a handful of experts.

"The less 'online' class of people generally
don't worry about it, until they run into
something blocked like the BBC," said Andrew
Lewman, executive director of the Boston-based
circumvention tool, The Tor Project Inc. "Then
they say, 'Hey, what is this? All I want to do is read this one article.'"

The site has versions in Arabic and Chinese, and
an interactive map with a roaming orange sheep to mark inaccessible Web sites.

Don't expect censorship to go away, though. At
most, Herdict can help give people a better sense
of the prevalence of censorship.

"I don't think that a specific monitoring tool
will specifically have censorship go away, but
we'll just know about it better," said Robert
Guerra, project director for the Internet Freedom
Program at the Washington-based Freedom House.
"It's far more pervasive than people think."
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