Science Magazine review of Access Controlled

Caught in the Net

By Damian Tambini

From Science

Almost 600 years on, it seems clear that Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was a crucial factor in the rise of democracy in Europe and the decline of the old order of church and monarchy. Movable type and mechanized printing led to an explosion of free expression that was key to the emergence of modern pluralist democracy. Many claim that the historical impact of the Internet will be of a similar magnitude, that it will lead to an inevitable undermining of authoritarian regimes and the spread of democracy around the globe. In the words of early enthusiast John Gilmore, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” (1).

But judging by the research and contributions gathered in Access Controlled, we will have to wait many more years before the nature of the impact of the Internet on dictatorship and democracy becomes clear. The authors provide an alarming range of evidence to support the view that authoritarian regimes are becoming ever more adept at controlling and censoring Internet communication. The volume raises a chilling possibility: that the early commentators were correct about the magnitude of the impact of the Internet on democracy—they just got the direction wrong. Could authoritarian regimes, and also democratic governments working with private companies, be perfecting a new form of authoritarianism, working with the grain of Internet communication and exploiting the intimate entwining of online communication with the everyday lives of citizens?

The research collected in the volume is the product of a path-breaking interuniversity collaboration: the OpenNet Initiative. For the past five or so years, researchers around the world led by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society have been attempting to reverse engineer a record of the search terms and content forms that have been censored or filtered out of Internet communication. The book, a follow-up to the editors’ earlier Access Denied (2), explores in detail their findings, which are also available on

The contributors make abundantly clear that power has now followed people onto the Internet and has established a permanent garrison. First-generation controls, such as “Chinese-style national filtering schemes,” were discussed at length in the OpenNet Initiative’s previous reports and are still widely deployed in the more authoritarian countries. They involve developing databases of search terms and content keywords that are deemed threatening by the regime. These are removed from search results and from served information at key choke points in the Internet architecture. By conducting searches from within these jurisdictions, OpenNet researchers have found evidence of these practices in dozens of countries, most notoriously China and Saudia Arabia. As Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski note in their introductory chapter, second- and third-generation controls are more subtle and flexible. Through “outsourcing or privatizing,” governments may have third parties “restrict what type of information can be posted, hosted, accessed, or communicated online.” The authors discuss a variety of control techniques, including “the infiltration and exploitation of computer systems by targeted viruses and the employment of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, surveillance …, legal takedown notices, stifling terms-of-usage policies, and national information-shaping strategies.” Such measures “reflect a maturation of methods resulting from a growing colonization of cyberspace by states and other actors.”

In Russia, where the leading Web portal Yandex claims a readership greater than all the combined popular daily newspapers, much Internet use is focused on the RuNet: “a self-contained linguistic and cultural environment with well developed and highly popular search engines, Web portals, social network sites, and free e-mail services.” Deibert and Rohozinski describe Russian Internet control as a third-generation approach that combines soft censorship and state-sanctioned moderation.

Access Controlled contains a sobering array of detailed and methodically gathered information, particularly on the filtering and blocking practices of formerly authoritarian countries. If there is a problem with the volume, it is that the subtlety of the third-generation controls makes them much harder to define. Many of the criticisms directed at third-generation techniques on RuNet could also be leveled at licensed broadcasters in established democracies. And as the list of practices makes clear, third-generation methods include controls imposed by private actors (is this still censorship?) and denial-of-service attacks that are often the work of individual hackers rather than states. It is true that states are becoming more subtle and are using these private enforcement agencies. Nonetheless, it is important to be precise about what constitutes censorship and to clearly distinguish between, for example, blocking or direct prior censorship of political content and notice and takedown of child abuse sites. Simply lumping both into the category of bad censorship doesn’t convince.

Finding a normative terrain upon which to assess the impact of the Internet may simply be too huge a task—as the Internet becomes embedded in every aspect of social life, old terms (even “privacy” and “censorship”) come under strain. To set up the debate in terms of the value opposition between freedom (generally good) and censorship (always bad) is politically useful but perhaps not analytically helpful.

So in addition to the excellent mapping work in Access Controlled, there is a more theoretical task to be completed: that of reassessing the value and meaning of the conceptual lexicon for dealing with issues of expression, censorship, and rights. In the era of mass media, an act of prior government censorship (through, for example, intimidating publishers or journalists, breaking presses, or refusing a broadcasting license) was relatively easy to detect and identify. Subtle legal distinctions have been honed that limit state censorship and identify justified and necessary restrictions. But in the converged Internet world, censorship is becoming much more difficult to identify and condemn. This explains some of the conceptual strains in this volume. As the Net continues to entangle power, rights, and rule in coming years, it is crucial that research monitors not only the technical and legal controls over Internet communication but also the normative and theoretical frameworks we use to evaluate them.