20 August 2015
This posts presents a quick opinion on a moral debate, that seems to have taken large proportions at this year’s SIGCOMM, the premier computer networking conference, related to the following paper:
Encore: Lightweight Measurement of Web Censorship with Cross-Origin Requests
by Sam Burnett (Georgia Tech) and Nick Feamster (Princeton).
The paper was accepted to be presented, along with a public review by John W. Byers (Boston) that summarizes very well the paper, and then presents an account of the program committee discussions, primarily focused on research ethics.
In a nutshell the paper proposes using unsuspecting users browsing a popular website as measuring relays to detect censorship. The website would send a page to the users’ browser — that may be in a censored jurisdiction — that actively probes potentially blocked content to establish whether it is blocked. Neat tricks to side-step and use cross domain restrictions and permissions may have other applications.
Most of the public review reflected an intense discussion on the program committee (according to insiders) about the ethical implications of fielding such a system (2/3 of the 1 side is devoted to this topic). The substantive worry is that, if such a system were to be deployed the probes may be intercepted and interpreted as willful attempt to bypass censorship, and lead to harm (in “a regime where due process for those seen as requesting censored content may not exist”). Apparently this worry nearly led to the paper being rejected. The review goes on to disavow this use case — on behalf of the reviewers — and even call such measurements unethical.
I find this rather lengthy, unprecedented and quite forceful statement a bit ironic, not to say somewhat short-sighted or even hypocritical. Here is why.