International Study Looks at Difficulties Faced Broadcasting News into China and Iran



THUNDER BAY – The fundamentals of a free society are freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. In Canada, while many people take both those freedoms for granted, it is not the same in other countries. Looking at how the Internet has opened up news and information around the world, there are governments in some countries which spend a great deal of time restricting what their citizens can, and may not see online.

As well, there are likely just as many serious Internet users who figure out ways to bypass those government efforts. During the growing protests in Egypt, news networks, including Aljazeera were broadcasting and sharing the ways that their coverage could reach people in the country.

Observing the growing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests in the United States, it is apparent how in a free society information will get out to the people.

An international research team, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, has released a detailed report that tracks and analyzes the difficulties of broadcasting the news into jurisdictions that censor the Internet, including Iran and China.

The report, entitled Casting a Wider Net: Lessons Learned in Delivering BBC Content on the Censored Internet, reports on a series of real-world tests to deliver access to BBC websites into Iran and China, where they are regularly blocked by
authorities. The research combines data from three major sources: two years’ worth of traffic data from the BBC’s web content services, in-field testing of Iranian and Chinese Internet censorship undertaken
by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), and service delivery of Psiphon Inc, a Canadian “circumvention” service that delivers uncensored
connections to the web for citizens living behind national firewalls.

Casting a Wider Net sheds a bright spotlight on what is typically a shadow game: the race among government censors to block content, and those determined to sidestep those efforts. China and Iran are among the world’s most pervasive filters of Internet content, and present a special challenge to global media broadcasters who are often targeted by governments for blocking. BBC’s Mandarin and Farsi services are normally subject to intense blocking efforts by both countries.

From 2009 to 2011, the BBC worked with Psiphon in a series of trials designed to test how readily content could overcome Chinese and Iranian blocking efforts, using a range of delivery methods, including social networking sites like Twitter, traditional radio broadcasts, and special email lists.

Working over several months with access to the results of the BBC’s and Psiphon‘s trial data, the University of Toronto’s research team, led by the Canada Centre’s Visiting Fellow in Global Media, Karl Kathuria, experimented with several controlled propagation methods while simultaneously directing tests undertaken by ONI researchers inside China and Iran to verify blocking. The result is an unprecedented and detailed peek into the “cat and mouse game” of Internet censorship evasion: what works, what doesn’t, and why?

The University of Toronto’s Ron Deibert, Director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, explains the motivation for Casting a Wider Net. “As global news moves online, and content becomes subject to increasingly tight restrictions in numerous national jurisdictions, the challenges of delivering content to target audiences are becoming increasingly complex. “To succeed internationally”, Deibert explains in the report’s foreword, “broadcasters will need to develop a comprehensive strategy to navigate this new media terrain carefully.”

“Casting a Wider Net shows that bypassing Internet censorship to deliver news content in restrictive communications environments involves far more than just supplying circumvention tools. Broadcasters need to
devise a strategy for distributing content over the Internet with an understanding of the different challenges they will face in each of the target countries they are trying to reach.”

The report’s primary author, Karl Kathuria, adds “This project presented us with a unique opportunity to study online distribution in areas where blocking is prevalent, and to consider what is needed for organizations that want to deliver online news on a global scale. The recommendations from the report will lead broadcasters into this new
delivery environment, helping them to formulate distribution strategies and get closer to their waiting audiences.”

The full report can be downloaded freely online at

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