Your internet service provider (ISP) could well be blocking some content. A study conducted by a Canadian university has come up with a disturbing discovery that some major Indian ISPs have deployed web censorship and filtering technology widely used in China and some West Asian countries.
The findings, published recently, were the result of a search for censorship software and hardware on public networks like those operated by ISPs. A research team at Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, found a software-hardware combo package called PacketShaper being used in many parts of the world including India. The study identified the presence of four PacketShaper installations on the networks of three major ISPs in India during the period of study in late 2012. These ISPs had been earlier “implicated in filtering to some degree,” the report said.
The deployment of such traffic management technologies by ISPs could threaten privacy, freedom of expression and competition, said Sunil Abraham, Executive Director of the Bangalore-based NGO, Centre for Internet and Society.
He said that tools like PacketShaper could be used by ISPs for two types of censorship: “To block entire websites or choke traffic on certain services or destinations in a highly granular fashion.”
Interestingly, the U.S.-based producers of the technology, Blue Coat Systems, are quite open about the product features on the company’s website.
They say it could be used to control and weed out undesirable content and that it could also be used to slow down or speed up the operation of programmes and content flow to achieve the goals set by the operators of the networks on which it was being deployed.
Transparency is the key
Technology experts said that such products could be used to exercise legitimate control over the internet traffic and prioritise the use of bandwidth and resources, if used ethically. “If done in a transparent manner that does not discriminate against different actors within a class it does benefit the collective interest of the ISP’s clients. However, it could also be used to engage in hidden censorship against legitimate speech and also for anti-competitive behaviour,” said Mr. Abraham.
The study focussed on countries where concerns exist over “compliance with international human rights law, legal due process, freedom of speech, surveillance, and censorship.”
The report hoped that civil society groups, governments and researchers would take a closer look at why these devices were present in their country and also encouraged “ISPs, manufacturers, and other actors involved in deployment of these products to consider publicly clarifying their scale and function.”