Freedom of Communications on the Internet (FOCI) Workshop

I’m on my way back from the Workshop on Free and Open Communication on the Internet (FOCI) that was held in the last few days at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Hosted by Nick Feamster, FOCI brought together a number of computer scientists, activists, lawyers and policy makers to discuss the impact of anti-censorship technologies and to think about future directions from a number of angles.

It’s always interesting to see experts on the same topic from different fields together, and FOCI was no exception. Despite occasional diversions into policy-speak or tech-talk that left half the room baffled, I came away more impressed with how often we had managed to cross that barrier.

The technical side of the crowd seemed to have the benefit of more time to present, and so there were thorough discussions on the nature of filtering mechanisms and their technical capabilities as well as details of anti-censorship technologies, particularly Tor. Roger Dingledine gave some interesting, if slightly statistically questionable, numbers regarding Tor usage in various countries during the recent events in the Middle East.

An estimate from Hal Roberts, based on surveys of activist bloggers, was that 3% of worldwide internet users employed some form of anti-censorship tool, including web-based proxies. Tor’s own estimated usage figures, hampered by the difficulty of monitoring use of an anonymising tool, showed usages ranging from the tens of thousands in Egypt down to tens in Yemen. Within the Tor project, active research is focusing on more effectively calculating real usage data. (See if you’re interested.)

(Tor’s ongoing efforts to bypass filtering and to improve their system of bridges, as well as to improve the performance and security of their network, remain a seemingly endless source of interesting technical challenges.)

On the legal and policy side it was useful to see the international perspective given substantial time, rather than predicating discussions on the First Amendment and SafeHarbor.

What the discussion highlighted is that, despite the existence of tools such as Tor and their increasing use, censorship is a complex and multi-faceted issue. Tor has done an excellent job on the technical side in combating censorship at many levels of the stack, and has extended that to user education, social awareness and discussions with policy makers. In general, though, it seems that it is at the social level that both filtering and anti-filtering will begin to move.

One observation that I’ve heard elsewhere is that “hard” filtering, such as China’s Golden Shield, are being extensively supplemented or replaced with “softer” filtering that aims to drowns out dissenting views with waves of government-sponsored information. This can take the form of sponsored pro-government views, such as China’s 50 Cent Party posting on blogs, to legitimate pro-government sites. Approaching this from a technical angle is relatively ineffective, although technologies such as authentication and private access still have their role. Means to combat the resources of a major player, such as a state or government, in order to level the playing field of online debate will be an important question in the future.

For me, one of the most important facts to come out of the day is that we need more effective ways of measuring censorship around the world, in terms of methods used, type and extent of filtering and usage of circumvention tools. Existing approaches to measuring censorship require significant human effort, and often report only relatively crude results. Improving and automating the gathering of this information raises some interesting, and very useful, open questions.

FOCI was a good starting point for interdisciplinary work in this area, and I hope it will lead on to similar events in the future.

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