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With Both Scalpel and Cudgel, Iran Censors Wikipedia

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, November 13 2013

Screenshot of Emma Watson's Persian Wikipedia page, which is blocked in Iran.

What do the BBC, the Bahá'í faith and Emma Watson have in common? They are among the 963 blocked Persian Wikipedia articles according to a report released earlier this month, “Citation Filtered: Iran's Censorship of Wikipedia.”

Researchers Collin Anderson and Nima Nazeri, of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, scanned 800,000 Persian language Wikipedia article using proxy servers in Iran. More than half of the blocked pages were biographies: government rivals, officials, journalists, rappers, activists, or individuals the state has allegedly detained or killed.

It was previously known that Iran uses keyword blacklists to filter and block URLs. Anderson and Nazeri found that many keywords, generally sexual or profane terms, were the cause of otherwise inoffensive pages being blocked. According to an infographic based on their research, 28 blacklisted keywords resulted in 92 blocked pages, of which a third were misidentified as sexual or profane (the Atoll Bikini coral reef and the chemical compound Stearalkonium, for example).

Iran also uses URL filtering, which blocks specific pages based on the address, meaning the pages have to be specifically targeted. There were 871 intentionally blocked pages.

Anderson and Nazeri sorted the blocked pages into different themes, and found that most blocked pages (42 percent) were “Civil & Political,” a hefty lead on the next largest category, “Sex & Sexuality” (20 percent). More than 150 pages of the 403 political articles were about the 2009 election and Green Movement.

“[Wikipedia]’s [a] useful place to uncover the types of online content forbidden and an excellent template to identify keyword blocking themes and filtering rules that apply across the greater internet,” Anderson told BuzzFeed.

In spite of his research, Anderson said to Buzzfeed, “I think we may see a day in [the] next six months to a year where Facebook or Twitter will be unblocked.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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