… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

June 14, 2006

Blogspot still blocked. Newspapers still silent.

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.

8 Comments

  1. Whether you are more an academic research organization or more activists, you still have to do everything possible to get the facts right. If you are wrong on the facts, you undermine anything for which you are being activists. Accuracy above all.

    Comment by China Law Blog — June 14, 2006 @ 10:09 am

  2. […] Ethan: …”internet censorship doesn’t always make the headlines, especially when it takes place in Africa.” […]

    Pingback by china doesn’t have the corner on the censorship market… at connecting*the*dots — June 14, 2006 @ 10:32 am

  3. […] Ethan’s been trying to raise a ruckus about this for weeks. It’s time he had some help. If you blog, or better still, if you can get your writings published in a newspaper or broadcast on the air, please take this issue up. Particularly if you’re an Egyptian or a Tunisian blogger. It’d be a nice way of extending the same support you’ve seen from abroad to others.Technorati Tags: Ethiopia, blogs, censorship   […]

    Pingback by The Skeptic الشكاك » Ethiopia Blocks Blogs — June 14, 2006 @ 9:23 pm

  4. Thanks for keeping this alive, Ethan.

    Is there anything people can do beyond take note?

    Comment by Elijah — June 14, 2006 @ 9:37 pm

  5. Where have all the (new) bloggers gone?

    Is it me? Or has it got a little quieter in the Ethiopian blogosphere since all those Blogspot blogs mysteriously disappeared from Ethiopian computer screens. I haven’t noticed any new blogs for the past couple of weeks – apart from…

    Trackback by Meskel Square — July 7, 2006 @ 11:14 pm

  6. […] One of the major challenges of documenting and decrying Internet censorship is that it can be very confusing to figure out precisely why you can’t access a particular website. Is the problem specific to your internet service provider? Is the server down? Or is a block of some sort taking place? Groups like Open Net Initiative do an excellent job of documenting the specifics of internet filtering, but they’re academic groups and have a focus on getting the story right, not on speed. (I’ve written about this before.) Indian bloggers are showing a distributed model for filtering testing that has interesting possibilities for the future – Neha and others have posted information on running traceroutes to blogger.com and are asking people to post the results of their inquiries on various Indian ISPs on a wiki. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » India joins an elite club? — July 17, 2006 @ 2:40 pm

  7. […] As with the previous block, Ethiopia Telecommunications Corporation – the sole ISP in the country – says they’ve got no idea what could possibly be going on… This denial makes it hard for international media to report on the situation in Ethiopia without lots of caveats (”individuals report that blogs are blocked”, rather than “Ethiopia is blocking blogs”) – unsurprisingly, a search for “Ethiopia blogspot” on Google News reveals no stories on the topic. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Ethiopia Telecoms: Oops, they did it again… — November 29, 2006 @ 1:29 pm

  8. try using this to access blocked or restricted content (and it’s free)

    http://bypass.thezerogroup.com

    Comment by Steve Case — March 5, 2007 @ 5:48 pm

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