Herdict Web: A User-Empowering Approach to Online Censorship

“Herdict.org- the Verdict of the Herd,” as introduced by ‘Shep the Sheep’ in this video, alludes to the phenomenon of real-time aggregation of information on the current status of the internet. The focus of this project is to rigorously enumerate the various instances of internet filtering taking place around the world by empowering the users to report them as accessible or inaccessible. The website, developed by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is the brainchild of Professor Jonathan Zittrain. Zittrain, once a faculty member at Harvard, is currently the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Oxford Internet Institute.

In his book, The Future of the Internet-And How to Stop It, Zittrain’s anxiousness with regards to ‘who controls the technology we use’ is pretty evident. Zittrain’s presentation on the topic can be found here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7UlYTFKFqY. An illustration is the potential crafty applications of the OnStar system by the FBI, creating a big buzz a few years ago. He questions if by purchasing the OnStar GPS system, we also bargained into the potential eavesdropping measures of the government. He also designates the threatened culture of innovation to the increasing data-controlling power vested in companies. For instance, Facebook’s Developer Terms of Service grant all the power to Facebook to remove or demand a fee from the applications created to be used on its platforms by others. While it can be acknowledged that this practice prevents populating user accounts with adware, or obscene, illegal content, it is also a threat to innovation and developer freedom. Zittrain appears to argue that these issues exist because of the decrease in the control and influence of the end-user or the developer, and thus he argues for the encouragement of the internet user participation in the process of deciding the direction in which the net should evolve and develop.

The concept behind ‘HerdictWeb’ is to replace the expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive internet research on internet filtration with internet users’ input. While this aims to span a wider population, it also contributes to a more comprehensive study and an extensive database in real time. Such efforts have been seen and sustained before, as in the case of ‘Seti At Home,’ a project aimed at exploring the evidence of extra-terrestrial  life by employing internet users and their PC’s.

The concept of the term ‘inaccessibility’, as explored by ‘HerdictWeb’, is not limited to the blocked websites. It also includes incidents where a youtube video has been removed due to a copyright infringement claim, or an accidental site shutdown or an intentional governmental step to purposely block certain content. The limitation of the site is its failure to address the question of why a certain website has been blocked- government censorship, IP provider’s filtering policy or a severed cable. In response, Zittrain argues that the users are nevertheless provided with a platform where they can exchange their viewpoints, experiences and expert opinions.

The user-friendly and user-populated platform of ‘HerdictWeb’ has features such as web reports or a pictorial representation displaying blocked websites according to countries on a world map. On one hand this civic technology enables the scattered and unsynchronized information possessed by individuals to be coordinated into a crowdsourced, real time and readily upgradable database. The irony, of course, is the extent of accessibility of ‘HerdictWeb’ itself. On the other hand, by delineating the state of the internet in real time, the information can prove to be helpful for those who want to take counter measures to get their websites back online. Those interested or involved in studying the changing direction of government policies and sensitivities with regards to online censorship and filtration can also benefit by assessing the data. Also, as mentioned above, the option of discussions with other users can assist individuals in curbing their inquisitiveness about why they have been blocked, and if they are the only ones or not.

For proponents of the idea that the ideal direction for internet development and evolution is primarily or even solely driven by its users, the concept of ‘HerdictWeb’ is certainly appealing. Either by visiting ‘herdict.org’ or by installing the Firefox- or Internet Explorer- compatible add-on and noticing the changing color of the ‘herdict sheep,’ one can determine who all are blocked from the website he or she can access, or who can access the website he or she is blocked from. Overall, the crowdsource approach to the data collection on website inaccessibility, online filtering and censorship, not only brings useful information to its consumers — it also encourages a collective user involvement, in a seemingly harmless way, towards the development of a user-dominated direction in internet evolution.