Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Cambridge University Study Notes That Censorship on the Internet Is Widespread, Threatens Access to Information

University of Cambridge researchers have released results of a study into censorship on the Internet that reveals that it is "rampant, with more than 60 countries engaging in some form" of it.

The researchers note in part:


Those censoring might raise objections to material on the basis of offensiveness or incitement to violence (more than a dozen people died in Pakistan following widespread protests over the video uploaded to YouTube in 2012). But when users aren’t able to access a particular site, they often don’t know whether it’s because the site is down, or if some force is preventing them from accessing it. How can users know what is being censored and why?

“The goal of a censor is to disrupt the flow of information,” says Sheharbano Khattak, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, who studies internet censorship and its effects. “internet censorship threatens free and open access to information. There’s no code of conduct when it comes to censorship: those doing the censoring – usually governments – aren’t in the habit of revealing what they’re blocking access to.” The goal of her research is to make the hidden visible.

She explains that we haven’t got a clear understanding of the consequences of censorship: how it affects different stakeholders, the steps those stakeholders take in response to censorship, how effective an act of censorship is, and what kind of collateral damage it causes.

Because censorship operates in an inherently adversarial environment, gathering relevant datasets is difficult. Much of the key information, such as what was censored and how, is missing. In her research, Khattak has developed methodologies that enable her to monitor censorship by characterising what normal data looks like and flagging anomalies within the data that are indicative of censorship.

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