Coop SIG discusses Internet content blocking and filtering

By on 25 Mar 2019

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There is a growing trend among economies towards censoring Internet content in one way or the other.

Governments and law enforcement agencies are concerned about harmful/illegal content, which increasingly disturbs public order and threatens democratic norms in society, while freedom of expression and privacy issues are equally important for end users.

The Internet is designed as a global technical infrastructure that is open, globally connected and needs no permission to communicate. As such, any discussion as to blocking and filtering needs to consider how it will affect these inherent features. Not just from a users point of view, but service providers, the technical/networking community, policymakers and all other stakeholders.

How will these platforms be affected and at what cost (monetary, risk and technical expertise)? Which type of content needs to be blocked/filtered? What norms/policies are to be followed? These were just some of the many questions that were asked during the Cooperation Special Interest Group (SIG) session titled ‘Internet Content Blocking and Filtering – Challenges and Way Forward’ at the recent APRICOT 2019 conference in Daejeon, South Korea.

The Cooperation SIG is a forum for discussion about broader Internet issues, such as public policy and Internet governance, which are related to APNIC community interests, and also involves governments, organizations and communities globally.

I, as Cooperation SIG Chair, along with Co-Chair, Bikram Shrestha, had the pleasure to conduct the session with panellists from Japan, Bangladesh, Fiji and India.

Akinori Maemura (General Manager of Internet Development Department, JPNIC) began the session by presenting a case study from Japan about an attempted content blocking situation in 2018. The issue started with the rise of Mangamura, the Manga piracy site, in 2017. This prompted the government to take anti-piracy measures in 2018. A taskforce was formed involving attorneys, publishers, consumer representatives and telecom associations to take countermeasures, which took nine meetings and concluded with no outcome. Members were equally divided in favour of and against the blocking.

This gave rise to an intense discussion around Article 21, pertaining to the Secrecy of Communications in the Japanese jurisdiction. The Article states that acquiring anything from what subscribers send to a network violates the secrecy of communications. Akinori Maemura further emphasised the need for reinforcing the data-right protection mechanism and promoting the distribution of legitimate content and moral education.

Read: Routers and switches violate Japanese law, but seems not illegal

 Sumon Ahmed Sabir (Chief Strategic Officer, Fiber@Home) highlighted that the Internet, being the most diverse, powerful and fastest communication medium, is one of the best tools to create public opinion rightly or wrongly, and as such has prompted governments to have control over it.

He explained how content blocking and filtering at a national, ISP, and local level can ‘break the Internet’, for example, it can result in unpredictable content delivery and deny access to information, which can impact on individuals’ privacy and security as well as violate their human rights. It was also rhetorically asked: As technology is evolving, can we solve these issues by filtering or blocking?

Rajnesh Singh (Regional Director of the Asia-Pacific Bureau, ISOC) spoke about the power shift that is happening from the political class to the Internet. The root cause of the problem, he said, comes from attempting to control the Internet. Instead, a regular dialogue needs to happen between governments and all other stakeholders to understand why Internet filtering doesn’t work. The need for transparency and a mutual consultation process for any blocking and filtering has to be inbuilt into the process.

Satish Babu (Chair, ICANN APRALO) spoke from an end user’s perspective. He commented that content blocking/filtering/censoring is merely limiting access to content but not its physical removal. Reiterating his fellow panel members thoughts, most of the technical solutions of content blocking ultimately undermine the security and stability of the Internet because of unintended consequences and side effects, all of which impact end users. He recognized that solutions exist to bypass any blocking but there are associated implications in terms of additional costs, performance issues and conflict with law enforcement agencies.

Bikram Shrestha (Head- Digital Banking, Sanima Bank Ltd) talked about how the Nepalese government is considering ways of banning illicit content and to do so there is a need for effective policy and consultation with all stakeholders, including the private sector and relevant government ministries. Like Satish Babu, however, he also recognized the limitations of any blocking given the multiple ways users can bypass any blocking or filtering via VPNs or Google Translate.

In summary, the session provoked plenty of thoughtful dialogue and key messages:

  • Internet content blocking and filtering is a reality.
  • There is wide variation in the type and variety of the content depending upon the context and how we define it.
  • The conflicting requirements of users, service providers, technical/networking communities and policymakers (to name only a few of the stakeholders involved) need to be considered equally.
  • The Manila principles on intermediary liability are quite relevant in this context.
  • The way forward is education, dialogue, collaboration and cooperation within the multistakeholder environment.

Let me know your thoughts on the issues and developments taking place in the area of content blocking and filtering in the comment section below.

Dr Govind is an expert in the Internet Governance space and is the former CEO of the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI).

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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