Coils of wire

People around the world are installing censorship detectors into their networks that send data to researchers.

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Q&A: The science of online censorship

Information doesn't flow through the internet as freely as it seems. Depending on which country you live in, you may see different content on a web page—or no content at all. As the internet has become the most important public space for everything from protest movements to pornography, governments around the world have started locking it down. And that has given rise to a new field of research: the science of censorship. ScienceInsider caught up with Phillipa Gill, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, to find out what's cooking in this online cat and mouse game. She spoke to us yesterday from the Internet Measurement Conference in Santa Monica, California, which she co-chaired. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: So how did you get into the science of censorship?

A: After my Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Toronto [in Canada], I did a postdoc at the same place. I walked into the political science department and discovered the "Citizen Lab." They were studying internet censorship, and I realized that the problems had a lot to do with network protocols, which I study.

Q: Those protocols are the rules that internet servers follow to pass information along. But how do you detect that censors are exploiting them?

A: That's my main project now. It's a software platform called ICLab—for Information Controls Lab. We've put it onto the [tiny, cheap computer known as the] Raspberry Pi. Citizen Lab has people on the ground around the world—Iran, Turkey, Yemen—and they plug [the computer] into their networks. ICLab does web requests [to see whether sites are blocked or redirected] … and it also captures data packets and looks at their headers  to see if anything is getting injected. [The header includes the instructions for where the data should go.] Then, all that information comes back to us over the internet. We have 14 Raspberry Pis up and online.

Q: Finding any surprises so far?

A: We did find that the Iranian government is censoring some [political] websites. But some of the censorship is from companies. In Iran the filtering [of websites is happening] on servers in the U.S. that are restricting access, possibly due to sanctions. … A lot of the research [on censorship] so far has focused on the usual suspects in the Middle East. But U.S. companies are filtering [based on people's geographic location], too.

Q: When will you reveal the results from your censorship detectors?

A: Next year? I’m recruiting a new student to do some of the data analysis work.

Q: Is some censorship ethical?

A: Most people agree that something like child pornography should be blocked. But there needs to be transparency in censorship. Internet users should know what is being blocked and be able to decide if that's OK or not.