Local Nets on a Global Network: Filtering and the Internet Governance Problem

THE GLOBAL FLOW OF INFORMATION, Jack Balkin, ed., Forthcoming

Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 10-41

17 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2010 Last revised: 4 Mar 2014

See all articles by John G. Palfrey

John G. Palfrey

Harvard Law School; Harvard Law School


More than three dozen states around the world take part in censoring what their citizens can see and do on the Internet. This practice is increasingly widespread, with extensive filtering regimes in place in China, Iran, Burma (Myanmar), Syria, and Uzbekistan. Censorship using technological filters is often coupled with restrictive laws related to what the press can publish, opaque surveillance practices, and severe penalties for people who break the state’s rules of using the Internet. This trend has been emerging since at least 2002.

As Internet use overall and the practice of online censorship grow, heads of state and their representatives have been gathering to discuss the broad topic of “Internet governance” at a series of high-profile, global meetings. These meetings have taken the form of periodic World Summits on the Information Society and, more recently, meetings of the Internet Governance Forum. The widespread practice of blocking citizens from accessing certain information on the Internet from within a given state offers a point of engagement for the Internet governance debate that takes place at these summits and forums. Those who have participated in and lead these global efforts - k Force, the members of the United Nations’ Working Group on Internet Governance, the Internet Governance Forum’s leaders - have by and large avoided this matter of Internet filtering. These influential meetings could profitably be focused on this issue in order, at a minimum, to establish a set of principles and best practices related to Internet filtering.

The reason that the Internet filtering issue is not at the top of the agenda for these global discussions may seem obvious. On a superficial level, this topic is an unattractive candidate for the Internet governance decision-makers to take up. Diplomatic niceties make hard conversations about divisive issues unpleasant. A serious discussion of Internet filtering would dredge up thorny topics like free expression, privacy, national security, international enforcement, and state sovereignty - issues on which states are likely to disagree vehemently.

But in so doing, the Internet governance debate might take on new life and importance. It might, in the process, engage more stakeholders in the conversation in meaningful ways. It could focus discussion on the core problems related to the divergence of views among states as to what a “good” Internet looks like. It would put in relief the jurisdictional issues related to every country in the world sharing a single, unitary, public network of networks, far more powerful than any such network that has come before, with the power to bring people together and to divide them - while also acknowledging the fact that states can and do exert power over what their citizens do on this network. It could help situate local conversations about issues like Network Neutrality into a global context. It would prompt an examination of whether any single set of rules might serve to address concerns related to content on the Internet. And, in the process, it would encourage states to come clean about the lengths they are willing to go to block their citizens from accessing information online. At best, such a discussion would bring the issue of state-based Internet censorship into the spotlight and might, in the process, lead some states to reform their Internet filtering practices so as to become more open and transparent.

Keywords: Censorship, Internet Filtering, Society, Net Neutrality

Suggested Citation

Palfrey, John G. and Palfrey, John G., Local Nets on a Global Network: Filtering and the Internet Governance Problem. THE GLOBAL FLOW OF INFORMATION, Jack Balkin, ed., Forthcoming, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 10-41, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1655006

John G. Palfrey (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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