When Sergey Brin hinted that Google might reconsider their involvement with Google.cn, their search engine designed to comply with the censorship, the media and web community responded with a flurry of articles and links. Internet censorship in China is a big news – and with good reason. China will soon have hundreds of millions of internet users and already has established the most technically sophisticated strategy towards internet censorship.
But internet censorship doesn’t always make the headlines, especially when it takes place in Africa. As of late May, Ethiopia has apparently begun blocking Blogspot blogs, which dissidents inside and outside Ethiopia use to critique the government. The block on Blogspot blogs means that the majority of Ethiopian blogs Global Voices follows aren’t accessible to users within Ethiopia.
While this development was reported on a couple of human rights sites and blogs, it’s had zero traction in the mainstream media. A search for “ethiopia” and “blogspot” on Google News yields four stories, none from mainstream news sources.
This isn’t just a reflection of media disinterest in Africa – it’s a result of the difficulty of understanding and explaining how Internet filtering works. Reporters without Borders asked Ethiopia if they were filtering the Internet – they didn’t get a solid response from Ethiopia Telecom. With no acknowledgement from the Ethiopian government, a journalist needs to take the reports offered by Ethiopian bloggers (or me) as gospel truth to write an article.
My friends at Open Net Initiative are well aware of the reports of censorship in Ethiopia, as well as a recent similar situation in Pakistan. Talking to Berkman ONI colleagues last week helped me realize that it’s difficult for ONI to move quickly enough to confirm breaking news like the situation in Ethiopia. As an academic research organization, their priority needs to be on testing filtering with a consistent, transparent methodology – should Ethiopia continue filtering for a few more months, ONI will likely provide a thorough overview of how Ethiopia is filtering the ‘net.
There may need to be a group that can do short-term, reactive research on situations like Ethiopia’s filtering. Reports of internet filtering have to be approached with a certain amount of skepticism – everyone who’s worked in this field has seen reports of “filtering” that turn out to be someone with a malfunctioning internet connection. ONI may need to help another group develop a set of quick, simple tests to figure out whether filtering is really taking place so that groups trying to call attention to the situation can be taken seriously by the media.
(This is an interesting, larger tension within Berkman – to what extent are we an academic research organization, and to what extent are we activists? Activists are concerned about speed; academics are concerned about being right. How do we, as an organization, do both?)
Of course, investigative journalists could pick up this story based on the reports of lots of smart bloggers and research the story themselves… but I’m not holding my breath.