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The Best Way to Leap China’s Great Firewall

As Internet censorship surges around the world, researchers test circumvention tools at restricted cybercafes.
March 5, 2009

As Internet filtering and censorship soars around the world, a comprehensive examination of leading circumvention technologies–carried out partly at Internet cafes in China, Vietnam, and South Korea–concludes that the leading tools work well but can slow Internet access significantly and, in some cases, present security holes.

“The issue of performance is a big one in terms of going to a higher proportion of users in countries where there is censorship,” says John Palfrey, Harvard University Internet law professor and coauthor of the report released today by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “As with many Internet-based tools, the issue is one of scale,” Palfrey adds. “Can you create an environment where it is easy enough and protective enough for people to use these tools? If not, they will remain a fringe activity.”

In a related ongoing effort, the OpenNet Initiative–a project involving Harvard, the University of Toronto, Oxford University, and Cambridge University–is studying the spread of Internet censorship and surveillance worldwide. A forthcoming report will show a sharp rise in global filtering activity. Analyzing new data from 71 countries, OpenNet researchers have so far confirmed filtering in more than three dozen–up from 25 nations found to be filtering in a 2006 report, which looked at 46 nations in total. The new analysis, which will not be concluded for several more weeks, will also show greater blocking of social-networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube; increased filtering of blogging platforms, especially in the Middle East and North Africa; and an increase in examples of Western nations trying to block pornography, hate speech, and terrorism sites.

To get around Web restrictions, Internet users can install circumvention software. Such tools employ various approaches to route information around government or ISP blocks using proxy computers, or computers in nonfiltering nations that can fetch blocked pages and pass them on. Some versions allow people in filtered nations to tap their personal networks of friends and family abroad to acquire reliable and safe proxy-computer addresses. More complex systems bounce data around a few hops, with identifying data encrypted, to protect anonymity.

Ten tools–some commercial products and some open-source, nonprofit efforts–were tested for the new study, which was conducted partly in a lab setting at Harvard and partly in cybercafes in Beijing, Shanghai, Hanoi, and Seoul. Hal Roberts, a senior researcher at Berkman, visited the cafes and ran the circumvention tools through their paces. The best tools overall were found to be Ultrareach, Psiphon, and Tor, while Dynaweb and Anonymizer also scored well. Others suffered greater problems with usability or security.

“All of the tools we tested worked in the sense that if you sat in an Internet cafe in China and tried to bring up a site, you could do it,” says Roberts. But a major problem, he says, was the long loading times of restricted pages, a function of limited bandwidth at proxies or the additional hops the data took to reach the cafe. “The only tool that was even marginally unpainful was Ultrareach,” Roberts says, “but even for Ultrareach, it was anywhere from two to eight times slower than direct connection.” In some cases, the extra time helps provide added security–notably for Tor.

The larger issue is that circumvention tools are only used by a few million people around the world–a small number, considering that China alone has some 300 million Internet users. The challenge ahead will include spreading the word more widely, increasing the availability of proxy computers, and enlisting more technical and financial support in the fight against censorship.

Circumvention research is supported by human-rights and civil-rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and by some Western governments. “It’s easy to understand why governments and human rights funders would be interested in supporting censorship circumvention tools,” notes the text of the report, which was coauthored by Palfrey, Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman, who heads a blogging advocacy group called Global Voices. “As discourse shifts from traditional media to new participatory media, the ability to access and create online information becomes equivalent to the ability to read, listen, and speak freely.”

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