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Censorship Circumvention Tools Aren’t Widely Used

Users in authoritarian regimes either don’t know about them or aren’t interested.
October 18, 2010

Tech humanitarians have put a lot of effort into producing tools like Tor and Freegate that can be used to access the Internet freely from anywhere, fighting the restrictions placed by the governments of such countries as China and Iran. But according to a new study from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, not many people are using the tools. What’s more, the researchers found that the most popular circumvention tools aren’t the ones designed to protect dissidents. Instead, most of the people who are avoiding censorship restrictions are using simple proxies to do so, which connect users to blocked content but don’t typically take steps to conceal the identity of the person accessing the information. The researchers are now working to figure out how to encourage adoption of the tools that better protect people.

The researchers found that in countries that filter the Internet heavily, no more than 3 percent of the Internet-using population turns to censorship circumvention tools to get around restrictions. And even this estimate is high, they say. It’s hard to measure usage under these circumstances, and the figures may include people who aren’t in countries where Internet traffic is filtered. The numbers might also count people multiple times if they use multiple tools.

“It’s a worrying finding,” says Ethan Zuckerman, one of the lead authors of the report and cofounder of the blogging advocacy group Global Voices. “I think those of us in countries where Internet access is virtually unfettered tend to assume that there would be massive, pent-up demand to access blocked content. But it’s easy to forget–it’s hard to want what you don’t know about and have never had.”

The researchers also analyzed different types of circumvention tools. All of them operate under the same general principle–they allow the user to connect to a machine that has unfiltered access to the Internet. These services vary in how that connection is made and in how well the user is protected. The report found that tools designed specifically for censorship circumvention were not as popular as simpler tools. The researchers noted that simple proxies are more readily available online–in many cases, they were not blocked by government filters the way that tools specifically designed for censorship circumvention were. Many users seem to be finding circumvention tools by searching for terms such as “proxy,” which leads them to these simpler tools.

“I don’t think anyone understands well the tremendously messy question of whether these tools are meeting the security needs of users,” says Hal Roberts, another of the lead authors of the report. “It’s very hard even for experts like us to understand and describe the security properties of the tools, and we have very little understanding of what particular security properties users are looking for in these tools.”

The report points to the need for greater efforts to educate people living in oppressive regimes about the availability and function of these tools, says Steven Murdoch, a researcher in the security group at the University of Cambridge and a member of the Tor Project. “How many of these tools are available in Persian, for example?” Murdoch notes. (Tor itself was only recently translated into Persian.)

But Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar in the program on liberation technology at Stanford University, points out that such tools are not likely to get much wider use, even with more exposure. Even in places like Iran and China, he says, people can access most of the entertainment they want online without resorting to sophisticated tools. “Nothing is irreplaceable online,” Morozov says, pointing to the success of the Chinese YouTube alternative Youku. Those using censorship-circumvention tools are probably people engaged in subversive behavior, he says, and are by definition a small percentage of the population.

Zuckerman acknowledges that many people may simply not be interested in censorship circumvention. He says, “We have always hoped that the people who use circumvention tools act as gateways to suppressed information for other users, but we’re also wrestling with the possibility that the group of people who want to participate in these political conversations may be smaller than we’ve generally hoped.”

He hopes that future tests will help to resolve the question. For example, Facebook is booming in Vietnam despite being blocked there–users are circumventing the block to access the site anyway. A domestic competitor to Facebook was recently launched. The success or failure of this competitor, Zuckerman says, should help illustrate whether users prefer local content enough that they’re less inclined to flout regulations when it’s available.

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