NET ASSESSMENT. A recent study by the OpenNet Initiative (opennet.net) found that 25 countries block Web sites, to one degree or another, on subjects such as politics, pornography and gambling. Considering that the group studied only 40 countries, that begins to look like a lot. True, the study mostly focused on regions of political or social unrest, such as the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, and included what many Web watchers might consider the usual suspects ' China, Iran, Syria and Sudan, for example. It largely excluded Western Europe and the Americas. Still, 25 out of 40 indicates a growing effort on the part of governments to gain control over the freewheeling Internet.
OpenNet supplied software to volunteers in each country, who then checked to see if filters blocked Web sites on such topics as human rights, gambling and pornography. China, predictably, was among the countries with the most pervasive political filtering, along with Iran, Myanmar, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam. North Korea and Cuba were not included in the study, because OpenNet feared reprisals against volunteers in those countries. Iran also was among the countries that came down hardest with social filters, along with other Middle Eastern countries, including Oman, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Interestingly, the study found no filtering in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where unrest is part of everyday life, or in Russia. Does government filtering pose a real threat? Naturally, any official restrictions on free speech should be a concern. But OpenNet only measured the presence of filters, not how effective they were. And the organization points out that someone with enough technical know-how can always get around them.