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April 14, 2014 | Richard King

Making progress on monitoring censorship

ORG is running a project to end the imposition of web blocking by ISPs and the Government. Here's how we're getting on and how you can get involved.


Since the start of the year ORG's community of technical volunteers have been turning blocked.org.uk into an automated platform for censorship detection, reporting and research. I joined ORG's staff at around the same time to help support both the project and the community bringing it to life. We are now at a very exciting stage of the project - however there is still a lot of work to be done.

Here's a quick overview of the system we're building, the progress we've made to date, and the many ways in which you can help us finish the job.

Upgrading the website

First of all, we're giving the website itself (www.blocked.org.uk) a facelift, with a new responsive template and graphical design. The form for submitting a URL to check or report as blocked will still be the main feature. New features will include overview statistics, historical data on individual URLs, and a space for user-submitted stories on how censorship affects them.

Blocked.org.uk website facelift

Behind the Scenes

We're also building a benevolent botnet of "probes", each connected to a different company's broadband line.

When given a URL to test, these probes will check whether it can be reached via their ISPs and report the results to our database.

Visitors to blocked.org.uk will be able to ask the database whether a particular URL is being censored and by which networks. They will also be able to see the blocking history of the URL if it has already been registered, request that the site be checked again, and tell us why this particular site is important to them.

We'll be releasing all this data, and our code, under permissive licenses that let others reuse and build on what we're creating.

What are the next steps?

The new website, the probe software, the databases and the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs - mechanisms that let each part talk to the others) are all at advanced stages of development. We have ordered broadband subscriptions from all the major UK ISPs and these are being commissioned right now. Our next challenge is to link all these components together into a working system.

Achieving this first milestone will make web censorship in the UK more transparent - but we won't be stopping there.

We want to improve the system by experimenting with different sets of URLs to keep an eye on, adjusting retest frequencies, iterating our methods for detecting that a site has been blocked, and generating reports and statistics on filtering methods, behaviour and effectiveness.

How can I help?

All this work is being done by our amazing community of technical volunteers - which you are welcome to join! There's plenty to do, from writing copy to writing software, and you can find out how to get involved on our project website: http://www.blocked.org.uk/help. See you on the mailing list!

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