Campaign for Error Code Transparency: Q&A with Open Rights Group

//  CGCS sat down with Ruth Coustick-Deal from the UK-based Open Rights Group (ORG) to discuss the civil society group’s new 451 Unavailable Campaign. //

 

What are the Open Rights Group (ORG) and the 451 Unavailable Campaign?

ORG is a UK digital rights campaigning organisation, founded in 2005, who works to defend civil liberties and human rights in the digital sphere. We campaign on issues such as freedom of expression, privacy and open government.

The 451 project is a response to one of these threats: the censorship of the Internet. It aims to increase transparency around what is blocked online and why, and help people challenge that blocking. We created our 451 campaign to create an internationally recognised error code, for legal blocks, which is known to help provide full information on blocking and to create an international expectation of good practice and transparency. We intend to put an end to secret blocking lists and to raise awareness of online censorship.

The project is very much in the early stages but we have already been successful in obtaining court orders in the UK related to one of the copyright cases. We’ve had good support from legal professionals and as the project develops, we’ll be working further with ISPs and other stakeholders.

Has ORG implemented censorship related campaigns in the past?

ORG has campaigned on issues relating to censorship of the Internet since our inception. It’s a continuous threat from the Government and some businesses to try and make the Internet a place of politely limited thoughts.

ORG produced a report into the problems with mobile filter censorship and created our ‘Blocked’ tool on blocked.org.uk which allows you to report when sites are wrongfully blocked on your phone. We are currently also campaigning against proposals for similar default filtering of broadband Internet.

We have a petition on our site which you can sign if you would like to see these plans dropped.

https://www.openrightsgroup.org/campaigns/cameron-stop-sleepwalking

What prompted ORG to begin the 451 Unavailable Campaign?

In the UK we have seen the introduction of court-orders for ISPs to block sites that are infringing copyright. There are similar orders, laws or requirements for blocking around the world. Powers to order website blocking are riddled with problems. Technical issues and mistakes in the implementation of website blocking can lead to the ‘wrong’ sites being blocked. Only this month in the UK, we saw ISPs block the Radio Times (a listings guide for UK TV and radio) website because of errors in the lists provided by copyright holders. Such problems are compounded by opaque legal processes, a lack of accountability for the decisions about what sites to block, and no means of reviewing or correcting mistakes. Furthermore, people visiting a blocked website are often not informed why it has been blocked or under what law, making it hard for people to understand what is legal ‘speech’ in a given state.

These problems create opportunities for deliberate abuses of blocking powers, preventing access to legal but ‘undesirable’ content. They can also lead to secret lists of blocked sites, and difficulties for anybody hoping to challenge blocking requests.

We have seen all these issues recurring and the amount of blocking requests increase. We recognise that this global trend needs to challenged.

Can you elaborate on the 451 Unavailable error code?

The 451 Unavailable error code is a proposed HTTP status code which would work like existing Error 404 pages, by bringing up information about why a user is unable to access a site. Somebody encountering a blocked site would see a message that the page has been censored and a clear explanation of why. In this case, ‘why’ means the law used, the court order granted, and the reasoning of the authority.

The error code process is certainly not easy. The aim of the project is to improve transparency of website blocking. The error code will be one way of doing this.

This campaign appears to require the coordination and cooperation of different groups with varying interests. What are some key challenges and barriers surrounding the implementation of the 451 error?

One the biggest issues we will face of course will be in achieving IETF adoption of the 451 code. The IETF have a long decision making process; we expect it would take a couple of years to see the approval and recognition from them for the new error code. However we are not dependent on the IETF for the success of the 451 project. That process is just one part of pushing for an agenda of transparency, but it works as a complement to and a method for encouraging Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to serve up an Error 451-like page at their level.

Within the UK we expect some opposition may come from organisations seeking website blocks. However, we hope they will be amenable to a move towards transparency and accountability. We are currently working with ISPs to see if they can share blocking orders they receive and release the details by default. We again believe that they have an interest in being seen to be open and will encourage them to do so.

These difficulties with ISPs and those calling for blocking will be duplicated as the project moves out of the UK and will vary from country to country, but more will be expected where blocking is routine.

Has anything similar to the 451 Campaign and error code been attempted before?

The US site Chilling Effects (http://www.chillingeffects.org/) is a project run by civil liberties organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It exists as a tool and as an archive to allow people to submit cease-and-desist notices and in response learn about their rights in such a situation. Letters like these can be used to have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech by shutting down legitimate websites through threats. The archive works to publicise this danger and document misuse of trademarks and copyright claims. It is a similar project in its goal of transparency, particularly in the realm of copyright. However, no state or organisation has yet attempted to systematically document the practice of court-ordered blocks as a form of censorship.

Are other digital rights organizations involved with the 451 project?

The project is currently led by Open Rights Group, but we intend to partner with other European digital rights groups as it develops. We have formed coalitions on European wide campaigns in the past to great success and we hope to push it even further on this issue to challenge web blocking online across the world.

So will the project expand beyond just Great Britain then?

The 451 project will most definitely extend beyond Britain. We have a model in place that we intend to export to Europe, working alongside digital rights organisations there. We hope to extend it again to the rest of the world, building on the platform to adapt it in ways which would be consistent with different political environments.

How will the success of the campaign be measured? Ultimately what impact do you hope the campaign and error code have?

Success of this campaign is a lot more than the successful implementation of the 451 error code by the IEFT. Our 451 Unavailable website will be the focus point of the project, becoming a public archive of web blocking that will expose censorship and raise awareness, helping people understand when and why they are denied access to information.

By creating simple analyses of injunctions published on the site, the project will help the ISPs, civil society and policy makers understand the legal impacts of blocking and any problems with legally mandated blocking.

It will also allow human rights groups to understand the patterns of blocking: who, why, where and when, to make global comparisons of censorship practices. This will enable of them to campaign to reduce the scope for widespread or indiscriminate blocking, limiting its growth as an international government practice.

We hope that through the campaign, blocks will be routinely linked to the relevant documentation, putting an end to secret lists of blocked sites and reducing the potential for harmful censorship.

Ultimately the 451 Unavailable project will have real and positive results, impacting on worldwide open governance and freedom of speech.

 

For more information about the 451 Unavailable campaign visit http://www.451unavailable.org/


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