25 October 2010

Internet Anti-Censorship: Circumvention Tools

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University has issued a new study on the use of circumvention tools that let users bypass Internet filtering aimed at blocking access to various types of content.

The key findings:

1. The study estimates that “no more than three percent of Internet users in countries that engage in substantial filtering use circumvention tools. The actual number is likely considerably less.”

2. “Many more users use simple web proxies than use either blocking-resistant tools or VPN (virtual private network) services.”

As the Berkman study notes, “The OpenNet Initiative has documented network filtering of the Internet by national governments in over forty countries worldwide. Countries use this network filtering as one of many methods to control the flow of online content that is objectionable to the filtering governments for social, political, and security reasons. Filtering is particularly appealing to governments as it allows them to control content not published within their national borders.”

If filtering is so pervasive, why is there not more use of circumvention tools?

The Berkman study offers this opinion:

“…It may be that there is just not as much interest in circumventing Internet filtering as widely believed for any of a number of reasons. For example, users in many filtering countries may simply prefer to access local content, written in their own languages about topics of local interest, despite the fact that the local content is subject to traditional government regulation and therefore highly censored. We note that three of the nations that have tens of millions of Internet users and who aggressively filter the Internet –China, Iran and Vietnam – have made significant investments in creating locally hosted alternatives to popular social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Our findings may suggest the logic of this approach – a large percentage of users in nations that aggressively filter the Internet either do not know how to conveniently reach these popular sites, or they have decided to use censored, local alternatives.”

VOA uses web-based proxy servers to distribute the latest news and information via the web to reach target audiences in countries like China and Iran, where the main VOA web sites are blocked. Since governments like these block access to proxies once they discover them, the addresses are replaced frequently and new ones sent out in email newsletter to allow users continued uncensored access to the web.

VOA also provides links to audiences in countries like China and Iran that enable them to download a special software called Freegate that users can install on their computers to permit them to have direct, uncensored access to the web without the use of special web-based proxies.

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