Review: Access Denied

The OpenNet Initiative’s (ONI) mission is to “identify and document Internet filtering and surveillance, and to promote and inform wider public dialogs about such practices.” Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering is one of their texts that effectively draws together years of their research, and presents it in an accessible and useful manner for researchers, activists, and individuals who are simply interested in how the Internet is shaped by state governments.

The text is separated into two broad parts – the first is a series of essays that situate the data that has been collected into a quickly accessible framework. The authors of each essay manage to retain a reasonable level of technical acumen, even when presenting their findings and the techniques of filtering to a presumably non-technical audience. It should be noted that the data collected includes up to 2007 – if you’re reading the text in the hopes that the authors are going to directly address filtering technologies that have recently been in the new, such as Deep Packet Inspection, you’re going to be a disappointed (though they do allude to Deep Packet technologies, without explicitly focusing on it, in a few areas). Throughout the text there are references to human rights and, while I’m personally a proponent of them, I wish that the authors had endeavored to lay out some more of the complexities of human rights discourse – while they don’t present these rights as unproblematic, I felt that more depth would have been rewarding both for their analysis, and for the benefit of the reader. This having been said, I can’t begrudge the authors of the essays for drawing on human rights at various points in their respective pieces – doing so fits perfectly within ONI’s mandate, and their arguments surrounding the use of human rights are sound.

While the first section of essays can be read to introduce the reader to filtering and some of the social issues associated with it, the second section is (arguably) what will be more valuable to researchers over the long haul. More than two hundred pages are dedicated to case-by-case analyses of filtering practices in countries and regions around the world. The focus for this text is on nations known to prominently filter the ‘net, and the need to focus on particular cases (on which it can be hard to find concrete research) has left the West underrepresented in the text. Despite this, access to information about filtering in the West is more widely available – much less is precisely known about other areas of the world, and so the book cannot be faulted for focusing on some sections of the world at the expense of others. As valuable as the accumulated information in each part of this section is, what is arguably as valuable (if not more-so) are the extensive references that are included with each region and country that is examined – these references are worth their weight in gold. What makes them stand out, however, is the relative lack of references in the first section of the book, where they are somewhat sparse and prevent easily investigating the lines of research that contributed to essays in the first section.

On the whole, I would rate this text 4/5 – were the referencing in the first section more extensive, and were there slightly more attention to the precise technologies (or even just references that pointed readers to supplementary articles that dug into the technologies in more depth at the ONI website, or other online repositories) it would have easily merited a 5/5. This said, for individuals who are less concerned with the specific technical details of the filtering of the ‘net, this book will be a welcome resource for informing your work.