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: Practitioners’ Panel Strikes Back

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.

Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits from the third and final practitioners’ panel:

  • Bob Boorstin of Google: asks the audience “What do you want Google to do?”
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: Governments are to blame, not companies. If Google had their druthers, they’d show everything.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: There is a questions of company power and company leverage, but that leverage is limited. Google didn’t have the ability to push back Chinese censorship policy.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: There are things that companies can do, like making their products open and safe by providing https access and not putting servers in unfree countries.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google:Google is trying to set and example for governments and other companies with their Transparency Reports and their participation in the Global Network Initiative.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: Working too closely with governments can also damage Google’s credibility with users.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Her organization is the creator of the circumvention technologies Ultrasurf and Freegate.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: “There’s no freedom without freedom of information and no freedom of information without freedom of the Internet.”
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: They have about 300,000 people using their tools every day in China, and got 1 million users in Iran during the Green Revolution, which crashed their servers.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Many of their developers were inspired by the 1989 Tienanmen massacre, which affected some directly, as well as persecution of Falun Gong.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: All of their tools are portable on a USB stick, leave not trace on the computer, and use encryption so they are indistinguishable from other https traffic. They have a very good record on user safety.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: It took 8 days to create a tool called Green Tsunami to detect, disable, and remove the Green Dam censorship technology.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Proposes that 5% penetration of circumvention tools in a national internet creates enough breaks in a censorship system to render it significantly inoperable.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: How to bring together nonviolent civil resistance theory with new technology to create a new discipline – Otpor and Android, Gene Sharp and Steve Jobs.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Success means training + technology + strategy. Liberation technology alone is not enough.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: They accomplished seven pro-Tibet protests leading up to and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many using livestreaming cell phone video.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: He has created a smartphone app that pre-filters human faces from video with black boxes as the video is captured, preventing the video from then being used to identify activists.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Kungleng App for iPhone for Voice of America Tibetan coming soon.
  • Ron Deibert of Citizen Lab: Google should provide resources for activists affected by DDoS attacks. (non-panelist commenter)
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Would like to see money used for small grants for individual implementations and for education.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Tools are not open source in order to protect


That’s all folks! Hope you enjoyed these posts.

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