Digital Security and Privacy for Human Rights Defenders

3.2 Website Filtering

Countries around the world are adopting Internet filtering technology. It allows them to block websites or specific website content from the Internet users on their territory. It is, in essence, censorship applied through the Internet medium. Filtering occurs in almost every country connected to the Internet. It is usually done by categories, with Internet content divided into specific areas: religion, politics, pornography, paedophilia, human rights, etc. Some countries limit the categories to reflect the national laws, others block websites selectively and without any clear legal basis.

“There are two fundamental philosophies regarding access to information, which can be summed up as (1) Everything that is not explicitly permitted is forbidden; and (2) Everything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted. These are generally referred to as whitelists and blacklists respectively. Because websites come and go so quickly on the Internet, maintaining lists of either type is a full-time job. Both types are used at the national level. Australia, for example, has a law requiring ISPs to block access to certain types of material deemed harmful to minors, including pornography involving children and animals, excessive violence, information about crime and drug use (a blacklist).89 On the other hand, Burma, which initially banned Internet altogether, tried to create its own local version, called MyanmarNet. Recently, the government opened the country to the Internet, yet only 0.5% of the population have connectivity and swift measures were taken to purchase a filtering firewall from Fortinet to control what websites its citizens have access to.

The difficulty of maintaining these white and blacklists has often resulted in this task being passed into the hands of the ISPs and involved holding them liable should one of their users be able to access a website whose content is illegal in the user’s country. This makes the task of small ISPs that have to scan several billion webpages to decide which ones to censor almost unrealistic. It also gives power of censorship to a commercial, unelected body that will allow no avenue for a debate of their decisions.

Another approach is to categorise Internet websites as part of mass media and thereby accept all the national freedoms or limitations that apply. Such legislation has been enacted in Armenia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Egypt and some other countries. This approach demonstrates misunderstanding of Internet technology. In contrast to traditional forms of media, such as television, newspapers and radio, where information is collated, edited and then presented for consumption, the Internet presents its entire collection at once and allows the user to decide what they want to read and contribute to. The Internet does not have an opinion nor can it be influenced by any.

States are foregoing international agreements on freedom of information and expression and deciding for themselves what content their citizens can and cannot view. This is usually done under the pretence of maintaining national stability and preservation of culture, security and rule of law. These excuses have been widely used to stifle the websites devoted to the issues of freedom of expression, politics, independent media and human rights. There is a strong tendency to reverse the open structure of the Internet and to turn it into a collection of information, customised to suit particular governments.

On December 31, 2002, the Iranian government issued “Decree on the Constitution of the Committee in Charge of Determination of Unauthorized Websites” stating that, “In order to safeguard the Islamic and national culture, a committee comprising the representatives of the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting, the Cultural Revolution High Council, and Islamic Propagation Organization shall be set up by the Ministry of Information to determine and notify the Ministry of ICT of the criteria regarding unauthorized websites”. Websites revealed to the Ministry of ICT by the committee are added to the list of those subject to censorship.

In Singapore, websites are controlled and licensed by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) and must abide by the agency’s strict guidelines as to “objectionable” content, ranging from pornography to “areas which may undermine public morals, political stability or religious harmony”. 90

Often though, government’s intentions in blocking websites are not publicised, and lists of blocked websites are not publicly available. Therefore, Internet sites are being blocked not because they contravene specific regulations, but because the government considers access to them detrimental to the policy it promotes within the country. A classic example of this methodology is China, where all ISPs and other communication providers have simply agreed to “resist firmly the transmission of information that violates fine cultural traditions and moral codes of the Chinese nation.” As a result, China has been able to deploy the world’s most sophisticated filtering technology, employing thousands of people whose job is to constantly scan and update the white/blacklists of websites.

Generally, there is no public consensus on which websites the governments can censor and often no process of appeal against removing a block to a website. This results in people applying circumvention technologies in order to bypass their country’s filtering regimes. The process usually involves requesting a computer that stands in a country where the Internet is not as strongly censored, to fetch the website and pass on the content. From a technical point of view, the user is only accessing that relaying computer and not the banned website. To quote the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Gilmore, “The Internet perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it.”

Internet filtering not only impedes the work of human rights defenders but can sometimes prevent news of human rights violations from reaching the local and global community. Governments can block access to a website hosted in their country, thereby crippling the capacity of the host organisation to transmit news and updates. Alternatively, they can prevent their citizens from accessing certain websites on the Internet, thereby restricting the HRDs access to communications, information and their ability to freely express opinion. Either of the above actions is in direct contravention of Article 2 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders91 adopted by the UN General Assembly and proclaiming that:

  1. Each State has a prime responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms, inter alia, by adopting such steps as may be necessary to create all conditions necessary in the social, economic, political and other fields, as well as the legal guarantees required to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction, individually and in association with others, are able to enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.
  2. Each State shall adopt such legislative, administrative and other steps as may be necessary to ensure that the rights and freedoms referred to in the present Declaration are effectively guaranteed.

A quick word about the companies who develop and sell surveillance and filtering software and thereby help oppressive regimes develop their infrastructure. Defenders and human rights organizations have for years accused Cisco and other Western corporations of actively assisting China in developing censorship and surveillance systems. For example, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters sans frontières have consistently highlighted the issues of corporate responsibility and Internet freedom raised by China’s use of Western technologies. These groups allege that Western corporations have facilitated the construction of China’s censorship and surveillance infrastructure, and that they may even be involved in the system’s ongoing maintenance and operations.92

The majority of filtering software manufacturers also originate from the United States. These include companies like SecureComputing, Websense, Fortinet... Their software contains predefined categories of Internet content and allows the operator to add additional sites at their discretion. There is a need for international agreements and commitments that would forbid anyone to sell a product which will be used to restrict another person’s rights. States that have shown systematic abuse of the UDHR should be denied access to filtering software developed in other countries.

Click for 'Internet Filtering Map' by the OpenNet Initiative.

Privacy International – Silenced 3/09/2003

Internet Censorship Report The Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists

United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

See, e.g., Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China: Controls tighten as Internet activism grows, Jan. 28, 2004, at;
Human Rights Watch, China Tightens Internet Controls, Aug. 1, 2001, at;
Reporters Sans Frontieres, Internet Under Surveillance: China, June 22, 2004, at;
Rights & Democracy (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development), Human Rights at Risk on the Cyber-battlefield: The Sale of Security & Surveillance Technology to China, at