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Berkman Web Site Monitors Access

By Elias J. Groll, Crimson Staff Writer

A new Berkman Center Web site seeks to compile data on web access and censorship around the globe.

Herdict.org—whose name is a portmanteau word of “herd” and “verdict”—allows Internet users to record when a Web site appears inaccessible to them. They can also see if other users around the world are experiencing the same problem, creating a real-time database that catalogues and monitors which Web sites are down or restricted.

By calling on Internet users to report their experiences, Herdict utilizes a burgeoning internet trend known as “crowdsourcing”—asking large groups of people to perform some task in an open forum.

Internet access has become more than just a technical issue in recent years, as the Web has become a portal for political dissent and information dissemination that many governments fear might foment unrest.

Authoritarian governments frequently censor Internet access, restricting access to pro-democracy sites and sites for organizations documenting human rights violations. China, for instance, denies access to web pages describing the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 and Falun Gong, an outlawed religious group.

According to Law School Professor Jonathan L. Zittrain, who conceived of the site, past efforts to monitor web restrictions have been centralized, making it difficult to identify and track the sites that have been blocked in real time. By having Internet users report problems as they occur, Herdict overcomes that issue, he said.

Inaccessibility can also come from more innocuous sources than government censorship, said Jillian C. York, a Herdict project coordinator affiliated with the Berkman Center. Workplaces and schools frequently restrict access to certain sites via filters, she said, which might explain why the United States currently leads in documented cases of restricted web access.

Certain Web sites also restrict access or content to certain parts of the world, increasing the number of catalogued occurrences of inaccessibility, Zittrain said. YouTube, for example, restricts access in Thailand to videos deemed insulting towards the Thai king, but users in other countries have access to these videos, he said.

Knowing which sites are inaccessible is merely the first step in determining restrictions to web access, Herdict coordinators said, since sites frequently go down for technical reasons. By generating data from several different countries and comparing access, Herdict can begin to isolate instances of state censorship.

Recently, the Syrian government blocked access to the Arabic version of Wikipedia, said Vandana Aneja, a Herdict coordinator. By comparing access in several Arabic nations, it became clear that the malfunction was not accidental, but rather government interference with the Internet.

Herdict plans to launch Arabic and Chinese-language versions of the Web site to reach users in those parts of the world most affected by government censors, said project coordinators.

Since the site depends on user-generated content, Herdict organizers said they are planning to launch a broad publicity campaign. But they also said they have been mindful that their site may fall victim to censorship.

The publicity campaign will mainly utilize alternative media outlets in certain countries instead of main-stream media, said Aneja, since larger organizations tend to be a “sure-fire” path to censorship.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

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