Toronto 'hactivists' benefit from grant for internet censorship work

A group of staff and students at the University of Toronto fighting censorship on the internet are part of an international project that has been given $3 million to keep up the work

A University of Toronto group of "hactivists" will benefit from a $3-million US grant given to an international project that fights internet censorship.

The Citizen Lab, comprising staff and students at the university's Munk Centre for International Studies, as well as Harvard Law School, and Cambridge and Oxford universities are involved in the OpenNet Initiative.

Citizen Lab monitors the internet to see what information is being blocked, where and by whom.

"States are becoming very adept at filtering communications traffic," said Prof. Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab and one of the OpenNet Initiative's principal investigators.

Deibert says governments in countries such as China, Vietnam and Iran block all kinds of internet sites.

Last month, Google said it would adhere to Beijing's censorship policies and limit certain search results in China to get broader access to the large market.

Deibert and his team help dissidents access banned information, "assisting them in ways to get around censorship and surveillance, developing tools that will help them protect their privacy online and get around censorship," he said.

OpenNet received the grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a Chicago-based institution.

The grant will support that work for years, Deibert said.

While most of Citizen Lab's work is done in Toronto, there's some travel abroad.

Director of technical research Nart Villeneuve, for example, went to Kyrgyzstan last year just before a controversial general election in February, when internet sites for opposition newspapers were being shut down.

"Eventually we decided to host some of the sites here so that we could document the extent of the denial of service attack and track where it was coming from," he said.