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Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center for Internet and Society)

Apr 27 2010, 10:00

- You are an expert in civil journalism and founder of many well-known non-commercial Internet projects. Which ones among them you would highlight for international audience, including Russian speaking community. Do you believe that Internet should remain the sphere beyond any state regulation, an environment where the notion of freedom of speech will preserve its initial sense? Do you think it's possible?

- The main project I've been involved with the past few years is Global Voices. GV is a collective project where hundreds of volunteers and a few paid staff select interesting material from online - from blogs, videos, message board posts, tweets - and translate it, making it available to audiences around the world. We have a project focused specifically on the Russian-speaking world called RuNet Echo, and we translate some (though not all) of our content into Russian. While I think we're a very useful service for gaining an understanding of the dialogs taking place online, there are many other projects I respect and pay close attention to. Roland Soong's South East West North blog translates content from English into Chinese and Chinese into English and acts as a key bridge between those communities - his work is consistently excellent and fascinating. GlobalPost is a relatively new project based in the US that's trying to provide rich online coverage of the developing world through correspondents on the ground. But these are really just personal favorites - we're at a remarkable moment in the evolution of media, where inventive, creative projects are springing up almost every day.

As you suggest in your question, the only way projects like the ones I'm talking about can take root is because the Internet is a space that experiences less regulation than the physical world. It would be a mistake, though, to say that the Internet is beyond state regulation - content on US webservers is regulated by US law, which can be onerous as regards violation of intellectual property rights, notably copyright. And other states assert their control over the Internet by blocking content that violates local laws, or pressuring webhosts in other jurisdictions to block that content. There's another set of constraints we too seldom talk about - corporate constraints. Much of the most interesting dialog online takes place on social networking platforms like LiveJournal, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter - all these are controlled by corporations which assert controls over speech through their terms of service and community norms. As we move into using the Internet as a space for open, public speech, a dialog is beginning about how we could ensure Article XIX rights of free expression in these online spaces and protect speech from state and corporate control. It's a really, really hard problem, and at present we're nowhere near close to solving it.

- Tell us, please, about the types of censorship practised by authoritative governments in combating unwanted websites, Internet editions and blogs? Until now, Internet-based media charged of "extremism", deprivation of hosting through pressure traditional methods included official ones: legislative ban on mass media (including on organizations-providers) or suspension of domain delegation; and informal ones: DDoS-attacks, hacker's cracking and destruction of content of oppositional resources. What are the new bureaucrats' inventions in authoritative regimes in war against unwanted websites? Any examples on Middle East, Russia (Northern Caucasus as well), South Caucasus are especially welcome. Could you please give any examples on Middle East, Russia (including Northern Caucasus); while Southern Caucasus is of special interest.

- In 2008, Armenia used DNS blocking to disable political websites during the state of emergency that followed disputed presidential elections. As dialog moved off these local sites onto international sites like YouTube, some ISPs ended up blocking that site and www.armtoday.info, a popular information site hosted outside the country.

While there's not much evidence of the government arresting or harrassing bloggers, there are some reports of DDoS - Armenianhouse.org reported a DDoS attack as early as 2005, and the main national ISP reported a DDoS recently - unclear who launched that attack or why.

Azerbaijan maintains some Internet filtering, blocking access to gay and lesbian sites, erotic content and some hacking and dating sites.

There's evidence that in 2007, ISPs began blocking sites associated with protests around utility prices.

There's a track record of bloggers being arrested in Azerbaijan, particularly when they poke fun at the country's media restrictions.

Perhaps the most dramatic example was the arrest of two bloggers who'd made a video showing Azeri journalists interviewing a man wearing a donkey suit - the video was designed to make fun of how compliant and obedient Azeri journalists are. (More on the story here: http://boingboing.net/2009/09/02/azeri-donkey-video-b.html) The arrests of bloggers are consistent with widespread reports that Azerbaijan closely controls the media and blocks a great deal of international radio from being broadcast within the country. There's also some evidence of DDoS in Az., including an attack on Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe's website.

Georgia has not shown a pattern of filtering the Internet. The most egregious example of state-sponsored censorship was the confiscation of computer equipment of bloggers who produced a video that insulted the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Obviously, Georgia has been targeted heavily in DDoS attacks - and DDoS attacks have likely be launched from Georgian computers - during the Russian/Georgian conflict.

As people around the world are discovering the power of online speech, governments are responding by demonstrating a rich array of tools that can be used to control speech online. Let me offer a taxonomy that may not be exhaustive, but gives us a starting point for conversation:

Filtering - Some governments filter their citizens access to the Internet by requiring Internet service providers to block (blacklist) certain websites. Some governments engage primarily in "social" filtering, which is to say, they block sites that violate local religious or cultural standards. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a strict Muslim nation and blocks access to pornography and sites that discuss drugs and alcohol. But social filtering almost invariably extends into political filtering - once you start filtering pornography, you've got the technology in place to filter the websites of opposition political parties or threatening social or theological movements. A project that my employer - the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School - has been involved with for years tracks Internet filtering in fifty nations. Sometimes this filtering is quite minor - Singapore blocks a few hundred websites, for instance - while other countries block tens of thousands. Very sophisticated nations like China don't just filter websites - they operate filters that detect sensitive keywords and can shut down access to a site that contains this sensitive keyword.

We've been able to combat filtering with a number of countermeasures - proxy servers that can access blocked sites, fast flux DNS techniques that make it harder to blacklist the IP address of a webserver. In some countries, you can evade much of the censorship regime just by using a non-government DNS server like 8.8.8.8. But other countries are getting much more aggressive - a site like wikileaks.org, which (before it closed its doors) changed IP address every hour, still found itself quite effectively blocked in China, which invested substantial resources in blocking the site.

I want to note that I find a particular type of filtering especially troublesome - that's the filtering of publishing platforms. It's upsetting when China filters Human Rights Watch... but it's significantly worse, in my opinion, when they filter wordpress.com. Not only are they filtering millions of voices, instead of just a few - they're removing a valuable opportunity for people to speak. As international rights organizations focus on Internet censorship, I would urge them to focus on the filtering of platforms in particular, as distinct from the simple filtering of content.

Constraining publication - I mentioned that China is particularly aggressive about filtering publishing platforms, like Blogger or LiveJournal. What's particularly clever about Chinese filtering is that they filter in another way as well - they require Chinese Internet companies to filter content before it's published. If you publish a blogpost on a Chinese blogging site, it will be reviewed by a combination of mechanical and human means. If it contains sensitive content, it will not be published, and you might be removed from the service as a member. This, combined with limiting access to platforms that don't constrain publication makes for a particularly effective control regime. While China's particularly troublesome here, it's worth noting that US companies sometimes constrain publishing as well, terming certain topics outside of "community norms" - it can be difficult to start a group on a controversial topic on Facebook, for instance, without generating angry debate that could lead to a group being removed.

Legal constraints - Countries that control speech often seek to register online publication. China is one country that's taken steps towards registering the identity of bloggers - the idea has been proposed in a number of other countries, but tends to be met with sharp dissention and noncompliance. Registration is troublesome, because it puts a "chilling effect" in the space - if people know the authorities are watching their publications and might arrest them for certain types of speech, it tends to silence dissenting voices.

In general, the most effective form of Internet censorship may simply be to use forms of legal harrasment to intimidate bloggers. Around the world, bloggers and other online writers are arrested, often on charges that don't relate to their writing. Egypt, Myanmar and Vietnam are particularly notable for their fondness for imprisoning people for online speech.

More subtle legal attacks involve using accusations of criminal behavior - slander or libel are the most popular, but some attacks involve local laws about defaming the state or institutions - to require a web host to remove users from their site. In the US, we have pretty strong protections for online service providers - they are very rarely liable for their users actions, unless they fail to take down material that's correctly reported as infringing copyright. Other countries have much stronger regulations governing "intermediary liability" - if a company is worried about civil or criminal charges, they may remove customers from their servers rather than suffer the risks of being sued.

Hacking - As you correctly point out, hacking has become a popular means of controlling online speech. Distributed Denial of Service turns out to be fairly easy to accomplish and a very effective way to make sites - particularly sites that use content management systems like Wordpress or Drupal - stop functioning. DDoS is difficult and expensive to fend off, and requires smart system administrators to fight it off - I see the DDoS problem getting worse and becoming more common as a way of controlling speech. While we also see traditional hacking attacks of site hijacking - taking control of a site's homepage and defacing it - these are less worrisome to me because they're so obvious. I worry more about subtle attacks like "spearfishing", where attackers seek passwords and other inside information that allow them to read the internal communications of civil society organizations. And I'm very disturbed by a recent string of attacks - traced to pro-Iranian hackers - that seize sites through the domain name system. If you can convince someone's DNS provider that you control their domain name and point againstthegovernment.com to forthegovernment.com's web servers, that's a sinister and very effective attack.

One aspect of these hacking attacks that's worth mentioning - it's almost impossible to know whether they're carried out by governments, government-sanctioned amateurs or opinionated individuals - our inability to trace these attacks makes it much harder to know how to deter and respond to them.

Propoganda - Some of the most effective attacks on speech don't require filtering content - instead, they simply unleash a flood of negative responses through comments and other interactive features.

Research suggests that there's a group in China referred to as "the fifty cent party" who are paid modest sums (hence the name) to post anti-government comments and to "explain" government policy in open fora.

While not paid, there's a very well organized group of pro-Israel commenters who will routinely respond to speech they perceive to be anti-Israel, who can make online environments very uncomfortable for critical voices. And there are certainly many governments who are learning the techniques of citizen media and producing sites that appear to give voice to ordinary citizens... but which may be encouraging those voices through government moneys or pressure.

It's one thing to create an uncomfortable environment for speech. It's another to make speech physically dangerous. One of the most worrisome phenomena online is the "human flesh search engine" phenomenon we see in China. People who've expressed unpopular views online have found themselves the focus of massively distributed projects to identify them and their families and harrass or injure them in the physical world - a notable case involved a Chinese woman living in the US who expressed support for her Tibetan college roommate. Chinese netizens identified her family and began harrassing them, to the point where they needed to leave their hometown. This crossover from online speech to realworld attack is particularly frightening to me.

- Would you please comment in this context the modern practice of censorship in such countries as China ("Great Chinese Firewall", attacks of governmental hackers on Google servers with the aim to get access to mailboxes of dissidents in the People's Republic of China, control of SMS content), Iran (semantic system of network filtration, blocking of foreign TV channels, control over mobile telephony and SMS in the country), Pakistan (governmental monopoly on telecom channels, blocking of "anti-Islamic" websites, including Wikipedia, YouTube and major western newspapers), Burma-Myanma (less than 1% of the population has access to Internet, connection is controlled by militaries, filtering of network requests, blocking of free E-mail services), and also in Syria, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Cuba. What would you think would be main direction of censorship - among mentioned examples or other cases? Do you think it would be increasing? Any thoughts about Middle East, Russia (Northern Caucasus as well), South Caucasus especially? Do you think that censorship will toughen? What is your opinion about the Middle East, Russia (including Northern Caucasus), and Southern Caucasus?

- The trend I'm seeing in Internet censorship is towards censoring for short periods of time at moments of conflict. When you block a website for months or years, the people who want to see that site have plenty of time to learn how to use a proxy server or find some other way to access the site. But when you block a politicial party immediately before an election or when they're organizing a protest, it can be devestating to them.

I also think that censorship is becoming more acceptable and widespread. I think countries are feeling less shy about censoring and justifying their actions in terms of "local standards".

Finally, I see no end to the trend of using DDoS to censor political speech, especially in the Caucasus. I would expect to see more attacks like those we saw in the Ossetian conflicts in the future.

I've addressed some of these topics in my previous response, but this seems like a good opportunity to offer a global tour of online censorship:

China continues to be the world leader in terms of innovative censorship technologies. Their firewall is highly distributed - there's not a single "wall", but a set of policies that all domestic Internet companies need to follow which serve to constrain what's possible to say on the Chinese Internet. As I mentioned above, I think the most important aspects of Chinese censorship are the control over domestic publishing platforms and the filtering of international publishing platforms. And I watch very closely the evolution of phenomena like the 50 cent party and the human flesh search engines.

You ask specifically about SMS - SMS is probably the easiest form of content to filter. SMS is controlled by mobile telephone networks, which are highly centralized - rather than needing the cooperation of hundreds of ISPs, each of which might interpret rules differently, filtering SMS simply involves working with the small number of mobile phone providers. It's worth noting that SMS is a particularly useful technology for organizing people in realtime - we've seen SMS shut down in the wake of political mobilization, as in Xinjiang.

I'd like to mention again that I'm not certain that the hacking attacks on human rights sites are being carried out with official Chinese government cooperation. An enormous amount of hacking activity originates from China, and my sense is that much of the activity comes from dedicated nationalist hackers as well as from amateurs who are less ideologically motivated than motivated by curiosity. I don't know if we're right to consider it part of a national pattern of content control.

Iran has filtered the Internet from very early on, but has gotten far more aggressive in recent months in the wake of the Green Movement.

Tools like Facebook and Twitter were accessible before the elections, and rapidly became inaccessible once the protests began. Iran has taken a very interesting approach to Internet control. While there's been a lot of talk about the ability to filter based on keywords (as happens in some corners of the Chinese firewall), what we've seen from monitoring net traffic to Iran is that their main technique of control has been to throttle bandwidth coming into the country. That makes it difficult to access certain types of content, notably streaming video, which was entirely inaccessible during much of the time Green movement protests took place. The question many of us asked - and few have been able to answer - is why Iran didn't cut off net connectivity entirely, as China did with Xinjiang when violence erupted there. My guess is that the Iranian regime is heavily Internet dependent, and that the Iranian commercial sector would suffer if access were too seriously limited.

Pakistan is a very interesting case. Friends in Pakistan have run a campaign for years called "Don't Block the Blog". Their point is very simple - Pakistan could block individual offensive blogs, but shouldn't block blogging platforms as a whole. Pakistan is facing the problem many Islamic countries are - they don't want to retreat entirely from the modern web by blocking all publishing platforms, and unlike China, they know they can't offer local (censored) alternative platforms. They block a platform like YouTube hoping that they can pressure YouTube into following Pakistani rules on what constitutes anti-Islamic content... the question is whether Google/YouTube will not cooperate (in which case they may remain blocked), cooperate by telling Pakistan how to block specific videos or agree to geo-block certain content (a video would remain online but not be accessible to Pakistani IP addresses) or simply accede to Pakistani demands. I think that's playing out in real time, not just in Pakistan, but in a number of Muslim nations.

Burma has very low Internet penetration, closely monitors Internet connections, filters heavily and isn't shy about arresting people who use the Internet to publish unpopular views. It's a military dictatorship, and no one should be surprised about how restrictive a speech environment it presents. What's a big more surprising is Vietnam, which has quite high Internet usage - as many as 20 million people online - but is approximately as aggresive as Myanmar in blocking content and arresting dissidents.

I'm far from an expert on Russia and the Caucasus, but my basic observation would be that we've seen very little state-based filtering (though recent filtering in Azerbaijan may be changing that landscape) and much more "soft control" - support for pro-government views online, the mobilization of forces to combat anti-government views online. Russia is also ground zero for DDoS attacks - we see DDoS being used to constrain speech against Russian-language sites more often than anywhere else in the world, except perhaps Burma.

If I can offer a general sense of trend, it's this - there's lots more filtering than there was five years ago, when less than a dozen nations had detailed filtering regimes in place. And there's lots more harrasment of bloggers, legal attacks, hacking as a form of censorship. As cyberspace becomes a more important space for personal expression, it's becoming much more difficult to speak and be heard.

- How would you comment cooperation between western commercial companies with local regimes in order to build Firewalls and help censor citizens. It looks like western society was too silent when it was about filtering - now it is about total control of the e-communication and already video and voice-services and developed. Any campaigning on this topic might be helpful? In USA there is experience of campaigns against companies, which have been using slave labor in African countries - why there is no response currently, after Patriot act was so much a topic for discussion?

- There's a tradition in the US of campaigning for worker's rights, yes, though it's a movement that took a very long time to get started. It's not clear that a movement against companies that provide technologies useful for censorsing the web would be nearly as successful. Almost all the technology we're talking about is "dual use technology" - there are really good reasons to be able to build an Internet router that can do packet filtering. You need packet filtering routers to fend off DDoS attacks. But this same technology is useful to countries that want to filter every mention of "human rights" in their web traffic. Because most of these tools are dual use, I don't generally support movements against companies that produce this technology. I think targeting companies like Cisco is a poor idea - they're building tools with a focus on helping network administrators fight off hackers and DDoS, and those tools can be used by closed societies as well, but that's the nature of a powerful tool. (It's also worth noting that Huawei, a Chinese networking company, would be very happy to produce and sell these tools if Cisco, Nokia or Nortel was forced out of the market.)

I worry a bit more about companies that build filters for libraries and schools and sell those tools to closed governments. SmartFilter has a blacklist of "non-government organization" sites that's custom-built to allow China or Syria to block the websites of organizations like Human Rights Watch. It's hard to see the purpose of that list, other than to empower despots. But I would favor naming and shaming, rather than a legislative constraint on these activities, because it's just too hard to draw the line on the appropriate use and function of many of these tools.

- Can we see a positive example of judicial resolution of conflicts around independent Internet projects in the case with website WikiLeaks, where the decision to close it was cancelled by the US Federal Court in March 2008 after protests of a number of human rights organizations and mass media? Will the case become a legal precedent?

- It's important to understand that Wikileaks has faced hundreds of legal attacks - the case you're referring to is one of many. They haven't been faced with closure, so much as they've been faced with either removing one or another set of documents, or moving from a particular hosting company. I don't think the decision you're referring to was especially precedent-setting. Actually, the protections for speech like that on Wikileaks is quite robust in the US. And I'd note that Wikileaks has disappeared for financial reasons, not legal ones.

Important as their work has been, they haven't been able to raise sufficient money to keep their operations going, and their technical and legal challenges have made their work much harder.

- WikiLeaks currently supported piece of the legislation in Iceland, which might lead Iceland toward direction of international "journalists haven" - discribed by Julian Assange as "a jurisdiction designed to attract organizations into publishing online from Iceland, by adopting the strongest press and source protection laws from around the world. " (look for the translation http://www.immi.is/?l=en&p=vision) What would be your comments on this document and attempt? There is already discussion, to what extend other countries would respect decisions of Iceland courts - what do you think on this? Any advice about other beneficial laws which should be discussed by international community? In case of success of this law - do you think it would be appropriate for media and Internet-editions to register in Iceland?

- I think Julian - who is a good friend and someone I respect enormously - is putting together a terrific thought experiment, but I worry that it may not have a huge effect on how online publishing is carried out.

Assume for the moment that I move Global Voices servers to Iceland to take advantage of their press freedom laws. I get sued for libel by someone in the UK based on something that's on the site. Icelandic law protects me from liability under this package of strong press freedom laws... but that doesn't stop the UK police from arresting me for my outstanding libel charge the next time I pass through the UK. What's great about the Iceland idea is that it may make it harder to chase controversial speech from one webserver to another - if you're having trouble keeping your site hosted in the US or elsewhere, Julian suggests you move to Iceland. So long as the rest of the world continues providing Internet connections to Iceland, that will probably work. But as a publisher, I live in the physical world, and unless I physically relocate to Iceland, I can be subject to judgements against me in any country I happen to travel. I think it's a more important step for projects like Wikileaks - which mostly takes submissions from anonymous contributors - though I wonder if it means that Julian will need to relocate to Iceland permanently!

- To what extent, in your opinion, the term "cyber war" is actual and applicable in today's world? How would you define confrontation of independent public sources of information and controlling structures of authoritative states?

- I think "cyber war" is a phrase that's terribly overused. It's very popular in the media, and with some people in military circles... though many of the military people I've spoken to believe it's a very inexact and problematic term. It's important to think about the consequences of real cyberwar - an attack by one country on another that used the Internet to disable a powergrid or degrade communications capacity as a precursor or part of a military attack. But most of what's talked about as cyberwar is the moral equivalent of graffiti, not of invasion. Yes, it's troublesome that people have begun attacking each other's websites when their countries are in political conflict... but I think there's a huge distinction between making someone's public relations materials inaccessible and actually harming people. Most "cyberwar" is better understood either as propoganda or as crime. When people talk about cyberwar, they're confusing burning a flag with killing other people. We should be far more precise about what's happening and distinguish between "cyberwar" as an online battle between teams of professional or amateur propogandists and actual conflict.

As for the confrontation of publishers and systems of government control - I think it's better to think of that conflict in terms of human rights and freedom of expression, not in a war frame.

- Are public sources of information (the so-called "citizen media") always capable to be objective and impartial? For example, during the "five-day war" in South Ossetia in August 2008, both parties held a full-scale information and propaganda war, while independent information sources both in South Ossetia and Georgia were active warriors, mainly on the side of their governments. Russia, unfortunately, had a similar situation, although criticism of the government here was louder. How could you assess this form of voluntary engagement of "citizen media"? Is it voluntary at all or "citizen media" are already loosing their citizen status and become personal media, affected by the state on any demand?

- Anyone who believes that all citizen media are objective and impartial is either mad or hasn't actually read any citizen media. In many ways, what's most helpful about citizen media is that it shows us what people are feeling - the work we do at Global Voices is less about using citizen media to do factual reporting, but analyzing citizen media to understand how people view different situations.

What's become very difficult is using citizen media to understand what's actually happening on the ground. As we all know, some of the reports from both camps in the South Ossetian conflict were likely manufactured and inaccurate. This sort of situation can get even more complicated when there aren't impartial journalists on the ground.

Most of us have learned how to read professional media and understand that many reports are biased based on the politics of the person or publication responsible for an account. We need to learn how to read citizen media as well. There are ways to sort through citizen accounts and determine which are more or less reliable. In the Ossetian conflict, many of the accounts were highly partisan and published on blogs that had just been started. In our experience, blogs with a long track record are far more reliable than ones started in the heat of a conflict.

- During and soon after the end of warfare in South Ossetia, Georgian Internet resources, governmental websites and information sources were exposed to a massive hacker's attack from the territory of Russia. You've been doing research in this field, that showed different role of the state, when was broadly reported. What do you think about personal involvement in attacks, is it increasing trend or state still dominate in this area? How will, in your opinion, the Russian-Georgia opposition develop in the Internet sphere; and what should independent public news media undertake in this situation? What will be, in your opinion, development of Russia-Georgia confrontation in the Internet, and what should independent news sources undertake in this situation?

- I think independent news sources need to understand that the Russia Georgia conflict is likely to flare up again at some point in the future. Independent media should be using this period of relative calm to find people on the ground in Ossetia and other effected areas who are writing, establish relationships with them and follow their work.

If another conflict flares up, we will all then be better positioned to have reliable reports from the ground.

In this case, as well as in many other conflicts, it's very difficult (and perhaps impossible) to determine whether an attack was organized by patriotic amateurs or by a state itself. The truth is, the Internet makes it very easy to organize attacks like a DDoS, and determined individuals have been able to take down very large websites without government involvement. (See this account of a Korean/Japanese conflict where Korean users were able to disable the very popular 2ch Japanese bulletin board community: http://inewp.com/?p=1086). I suspect that some attacks - notably the attack against Burmese opposition website Irrawaddy more than a year ago - had government blessing, if not government involvement... but it's virtually impossible to know. And I'm at least as worried by attacks by private individuals as I am by attacks by states - states can retaliate against one another, which allows for deterence to work, but it's hard to know how a state retaliates against citizens of another nation.

My advice for independent media sites - expect that you will be a victim of DDoS attacks. Prepare. Have a static version of your website prepared that you can put up if you're flooded by DDoS. Have a backup plan to continue publishing through a Wordpress or Blogger blog - those platforms are large enough that they are virtually DDoS-proof.

Be ready to change your DNS to another site if need be. Mirror you content. And ensure that you've got secure passwords on all your accounts, especially those used to control DNS - friends in Iran found themselves in a miserable position when pro-government hackers took over the domain name of an anti-regime website... it took weeks to sort it out.

- It is known that one of the methods to compromise public or political forces or figures is to create front (dummy) websites. A month ago a website under the name "Ramzan Kadyrov -Russian President of 2012" (http://www.kadyrov2012.org/) appeared in the RuNet. In your opinion, is this website a fake, provocation or just a resource expressing the viewpoints of its authors?

- I can't answer, as I don't speak Russian and don't understand the Chechyan conflict well enough to offer an opinion. I would say that it's certainly possible to put up a site like this as a form of parody. For instance, there's a public relations company in the US that announced that it would run for a seat in Congress - complete with a campaign video - as a protest against a recent court decision which gives speech rights to corporations in the US.

- In the Caucasus in general, especially in Chechnya, there is widely developed problem of fake comments and commentators - which are done by the same person and often due to the ideological reasons (promoting political regime or hatred to some specific party). How would you define means to identify and ban such a content and users - by language, tone, IP?

- I think one thing we might consider doing in circumstances like this is starting to display the IP of a commenter, and using geolocation to approximate where they are posting from. This isn't very hard to do, and it would be useful to see if lots of abusive comments are coming from particular corners of the world... or from the same place each time.

In general, I believe we shouldn't try to block comments, even fake ones - it's better to simply give more information (i.e., the last ten comments were from the same person, who claims he's in Chechnya but is in Moscow) than less.

24 March 2010

Ethan Zuckerman

Senior Researcher, Berkman Center for Internet and Society

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