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Website Tracks World Online Censorship Reports

Publication Date: 
August 04, 2009
USA Today - AP
Jeannie Nuss

Visiting Professor Jonathan Zittrain talked to USA Today about YouTube blackouts in China:

When Shanghai blogger Isaac Mao tried to watch a YouTube clip of Chinese police beating Tibetans, all he got was an error message.

Mao thought the error — just after the one-year anniversary of a crackdown on Tibetan protesters in China— was too suspicious to be coincidental, so he reported it on a new Harvard-based website that tracks online censorship.


"We saw reports coming in as soon as the blocks were happening and certainly before any of the media were reporting it," Herdict founder Jonathan Zittrain said of the months-long YouTube blackout that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June and recent ethnic riots in the Xinjiang province.


Zittrain, law professor and co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said Herdict does not aim to present a flawless picture of online filtering, but to let patterns of accessibility speak for themselves.

"The goal ... is to gather the kind of raw data from which people can then start to gain insight and come to conclusions," he said. "With enough people asking, you start to get a sense of where there are blockages in the network."


Zittrain started Herdict in February — a month before China's block began — to aggregate reports of online inaccessibility and help users detect government censorship on the Web as soon as it happens. Having tracked online censorship since the early 2000s, he wanted to put Web accessibility at the fingertips of those who use it most, rather than a handful of experts.