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Towards A Best Practice Approach to Internet Filtering? Initial Thoughts After Release of Global ONI Survey


I’ve had the great pleasure to celebrate today the launch of the most comprehensive and rigorous study on state-mandated Internet filtering with my colleagues and friends from the Berkman Center and the OpenNet Initiative, respectively. It was an inspired and inspiring conference here at Oxford University, and after a long day of debate it seems plain to me that the filtering reports from 41 countries presented today will keep us busy for the weeks and months to come.

Extenisve coverage both in traditional media (sse, e.g., BBC) and the blogosphere.

In the closing session, Professor John Palfrey, one of the principle investigators (check out his blog), was kind enough to put me on spot and ask for my take away points. Given the complexity of the information ecosystem including its diverse filtering regimes, it seems hard to come up with any kind of conclusion at this early stage. However, among the probably trickiest problems we might want to think about is the question whether we – as researchers – want and should contribute to the development of some sort of best practice model of speech control on the Internet – a model aimed at “minimizing” the harm done to free speech values in a world where filtering and blocking is likely to continue to exist-, or whether such an endeavor would be counterproductive under any circumstances, either because it would be immediately hijacked by governments to legitimize filtering or used by repressive regimes to make filtering more effective.

Having only a tentative answer to that question, we at the St. Gallen Research Center have started to brainstorm about ways in which various governance approaches to content filtering – focusing on filtering regimes in European countries and the U.S. – could be systematically mapped, analyzed, and compared. So far, we have come up with a set of six guiding questions:

  1. Who is obliged or committed to block of filter content?
  2. How do the obliged actors become aware of the content that has to be blocked?
  3. Who determines what content has to be blocked, and how?
  4. What technical means (such as, e.g., IP blocking, URL filtering, etc.) are used?
  5. What are the procedural requirements and safeguards in the filtering process?
  6. Who sets the rules, under which conditions?

The second issue we’re currently debating is how different filtering regimes can be evaluated, i.e., how the benchmarks for online speech control might look like. In this context, we’re considering the application of generic characteristics of good regulation – including criteria such as efficiency, due process, transparency, accountability, and expertise, among others – to online filtering regimes.

What are your thoughts on this idea as well as on the basic question whether we should get involved in a best practice discussion – even (or especially) if we believe in the power of a marketplace of ideas? Comments, as always, most welcome.


  1. John Palfrey » Blog Archive » Is There Such a Thing as “Good Internet Filtering”?

    May 19, 2007 @ 6:22 am


    […] One of the most provocative themes from yesterday’s ONI conference is captured by Prof. Dr. Urs Gasser in his blog: is there such a thing as best practices for technical Internet filtering? Richard Clayton said emphatically not; others seemed intrigued. […]

  2. Open Mind » Blog-Archiv » OpenNet Initiative: 25 von 41 Ländern zensurieren das Internet

    May 21, 2007 @ 1:55 am


    […] Eine Bemerkung am Rande: Nebst der politischen Zensur, an die man in diesem Zusammenhang sofort denkt, betreffen solche Massnahmen auch andere Inhalte. Deshalb unterscheidet der Bericht unter anderem zwischen Political Content (Karte oben) und Social Content (Karte unten). Social Content meint dabei Glückspiel, Drogen und Pornografie. Und da man auch als liberaler Geist gewisse Inhalte gerne aus dem Internet verbannen möchte, taucht irgendwann die Frage auf, ob denn Internet-Zensur nur negativ zu bewerten sei oder ob es auch gute Zensur gibt. Diese Frage wurde an der Konferenz ebenfalls diskutiert, wie bei Urs Gasser von der Harvard Law School nachzulesen ist. […]

  3. Nick Anstead » Blog Archive » Reactions to the ONI: A proposed typology of online censorship

    May 21, 2007 @ 3:17 pm


    […] Secondly, as a data-based study, the work of the Open Net Initiative leads to a whole host of normative questions, which were certainly at the forefront of my mind over the course of the day. In particular, if we leave aside the revolutionary potential of the Internet in authoritarian states, and try to imagine our ideal liberal democratic society, we still have to ask whether there would be a role for censorship in it (a point raised here and here)? There are compelling arguments to suggest there might be – after all, if we want to enforce a libel law, prevent crimes of incitement or the sexual exploitation of minors. But could we ever trust a government to do it responsibly, or would they inevitably abuse that power? This, of course, is not a new question (Thomas Hobbes had strong views on the dangers of pamphleteers – not surprising given the circumstances of his lifetime), but the Internet reframes in new ways. The example of sixteenth century makes another important lesson very clear as well – censorship, or sometimes the lack thereof, is inevitably the product of political and social circumstances; the two topics are inseparable.         […]

  4. …My heart’s in Accra » links for 2007-05-22

    May 22, 2007 @ 12:22 am


    […] Law and Information ? Blog Archive ? Towards A Best Practice Approach to Internet Filtering? Initial Thoughts After Release of Global ONI Survey Urs Gasser frames the key question from the ONI Oxford meeting – are there good types of filtering? Does it ever make sense to encourage nations to engage in “best practices” in filtering the Internet? (tags: filtering freedomofspeech internet ONI berkman) […]

  5. Law and IT » Online Censorship approach

    May 22, 2007 @ 5:53 am


    […] And today, While I was surfing the Net, i found a very interesting post written by Dr. Urs. Gasser, discussing the best way to approach to Internet Filtering. And this arises some questions: Where does the public right of access to culture end? […]

  6. » ONI-Studie: Zensur nimmt

    June 7, 2007 @ 3:33 pm


    […] | Incoming links | |Digg it |Furl |ma.gnolia |reddit |Spurl |StumbleUpon |Yahoo MyWeb |Mister Wong| […]

  7. John Palfrey » Blog Archive » Internet Filtering Session at the SDP 2007

    October 9, 2007 @ 11:54 am


    […] – Is there legitimate filtering? (A student posits: there is legitimate filtering, including via search engine. This concept invokes what Urs Gasser blogged about, provocatively, at the ONI conference about “best practices in Internet filtering.”) […]

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