Geopolitics of Internet Control

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  • Topic: Internet, Internet exchange point, Internet censorship
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  • Published : September 6, 2010
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The geopolitics of internet control Censorship, sovereignty, and cyberspace Ronald J. Deibert

In early 2007, the online mapping service Google Earth provided a feature on the ongoing political crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Not long afterwards, however, an aid worker based inside Sudan reported not being able to properly load the map, receiving an error message in his browser stating “This product is not available in your country.” Upon further inspection, the source of the inaccessibility was Google itself—filtering access to its own services based on the “geolocation” of the computer’s IP address making the request. Google was not permitting IP addresses based within Sudan from connecting to its service in order to comply with U.S. export restrictions against the sale or export of informational products to the country (Geens, 2007).

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What is the impact of the internet on state sovereignty, and in particular on states’ ability to control information flows across their borders? Whereas once the internet was presumed to be a borderless world of free-flowing information, today countries and corporations alike are carving it up in a bewildering array of filtered segments, often with major unintended consequences. The motivations for these practices range widely, from concerns over national security, cultural sensitivities, and protection of social values, to rent seeking and the protection of economic monopolies. Whereas once it was conventional wisdom to believe that the internet’s technological infrastructure was immune to control, today states and corporations are applying an ever-increasing level of skill and technological sophistication to precisely that mission. The result is that rather than being a single seamless environment, the internet a user connects to and experiences in Canada is far different than an internet a user experiences in Iran, China, or Belarus. This chapter provides an overview of the geopolitics of internet control, and in particular state efforts to control information flows across borders, with comparative data from over 22 countries.

Earlier the same year, Tunisian authorities filtered the popular video-streaming service, DailyMotion. DailyMotion is known to carry a wide range of political videos, including many satirical videos of the Tunisian government’s record on human rights. Many inferred that Tunisia had blocked the website because of those videos, following its known track record of blocking access to opposition and human rights websites (Reporter Without Borders, 2007). However, Tunisia uses (but does not openly admit to doing so) the U.S. commercial filtering product, Smartfilter, to block its citizens’ access to information (OpenNet Initiative, 2005a). DailyMotion was, perhaps mistakenly, categorized within the Smartfilter database as “pornography”—a category apparently 323



selected by Tunisia for blocking. After reports of the DailyMotion block surfaced, Smartfilter apparently corrected the categorization error, and access to the DailyMotion website from within Tunisia was gradually restored. The source for much of the evidence and illustrations used in this chapter comes from the research of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI)—collaboration among the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, the Cambridge Security Programme, U.K., the Oxford Internet Institute, and partner non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide.1 The aim of the ONI is to document empirically patterns of internet censorship and surveillance worldwide using sophisticated means of technically interrogating the internet directly. The ONI’s tests are carried out both remotely from North America and the U.K., and in-field by dozens of local researchers. Our reports over the last several years have...
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