The Unsung Heroes of Circumvention

[UPDATED] Most people who use circumvention tools (and there aren’t many of them) use generic simple web proxies, rather than brand-names tools. That was the most interesting take-away I got from the Berkman Center‘s new “2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report” (PDF), prepared by Ethan Zuckerman and Hal Roberts, along with Rob Faris and Jillian York of the OpenNet Initiative and John Palfrey. Here are some quotes:

First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools – notably Freegate, Ultrasurf, Tor, and Hotspot Shield – we find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies.

Of the 11 circumvention tools with at least 250,000 monthly users (Ultrasurf, Freegate, Tor, Hotspot Shield, and SWP #s 1 – 7), 7 are simple web proxies. Those 7 proxies together appear to serve close to half of the combined unique users of the 183 simple web proxies whose usage we were able to estimate.

We were surprised to discover that several widely-used simple proxies remained unblocked for very long periods of time in highly censorious nations that aggressively block the more well-discussed blocking-resistant tools. This difference in the treatment of the different types of tools may be the result of the difference in press coverage of these tools. Unlike Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Tor, the more widely-used simple web proxies have not been lauded much if at all in the U.S. press as agents of political change.

Support for circumvention technology has been a major element of the US State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative, and brand-name tools seem to be their focus, with Secretary Clinton’s public support for Haystack being the most unfortunate example.

The report indicates that the importance of these brand-name circumvention tools may be overstated, at least in terms of user volume, which might convince the State Department to change their focus as well. However, if simple web proxies are able to “remain unblocked for very long periods of time in highly censorious nations” because they “have not been lauded much if at all in the U.S. press as agents of political change” then I hope that the State Department refrains from publicly aligning these tools with US interests.

It’s a catch-22 of digital activism research: sometimes a tactic works precisely because it is not publicly known.

LibTech: Walid Al-Saqaf on Circumvention

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors. [UPDATED]

Walid Al-Saqaf, is the founder of the news aggregator, which was blocked in Yemen on January 19th, 2008, following his coverage of a major protest in southern Yemen. As a censored online media producer her was left with three choices:

  1. Self-censorship through filtering his own content
  2. Shut down the site
  3. Resist the censorship by helping visitors get to his site

He chose the third choice. He created his own proxy server to assist with circumvention and moved his content from one URL to another, using mirroring. He realized this cat-and-mouse game was unsustainable. He then created a Firefox plugin and this made it easier to visitors to his site than by using a block-able proxy server. This was successful, and traffic from Yemen returned to his site.

His newest project is called Al Kasir (, which means “circumventor” in Arabic. The browser-style software first checks queries against a list of censored sites, only accepting queries for censored content that is not related to pornography or hacking. Other queries are sent directly to the open web. This allows the software to function while using minimum bandwidth. He is able to track blocked sites through a system of automated tests of listed sites, which are verified by moderators. Though he focused his service on Middle East users, the service now has many Chinese users. The Al Kasir site also has an interactive map that shows which sites are blocked in which country.

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