Internet Filtering and Circumvention Tool Usage Report
The struggle over Internet access has emerged as an important new battlefront for activists as they confront the policies of repressive institutions. Though states have many tactics at their disposal to block content, an emerging wave of new software can serve as countermeasures. These circumvention tools are defined as technologies that “allow users to bypass Internet filtering to access content otherwise blocked by governments, workplaces, schools, or even the blocked sites themselves.” How prevalent their use may become, though, remains to be seen.
A report by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report,” surveyed 134 respondents and incorporated data derived from two Google services — AdPlanner and Insights — to build a global picture of current activity involving circumvention tools.
The study’s findings include:
- “No more than 3% of Internet users in countries that engage in substantial filtering use circumvention tools”; in all likelihood the true number is “considerably less.”
- There are four main types of circumvention tools: blocking resistant tools to evade filters; simple proxies utilize Web forms to allow users navigation to filtered sites through proxy servers; “virtual private networks” (VPNs) to encrypt content through proxy servers; and HTTP and SOCKS proxies (application-level proxies) to allow Web traffic to pass through firewalls.
- There are more than 11,350 simple proxies identified, but only 183 proxies meet Google’s minimum requirements for having “significant traffic.”
- Overall, “more users use simple proxies than use either blocking-resistant tools or VPN services.” Of the 11 tools with more than 250,000 unique monthly users, three are categorized as “blocking- resistant tools,” one is a VPN service, and seven are simple Web proxies.
- Google Insights data suggest that when “users search for … circumvention-related terms in filtering countries, they overwhelmingly search for generic proxy terms like ‘proxy,’ and those terms overwhelmingly return either simple Web proxies or sites that list simple Web proxies and HTTP/SOCKS proxies…”
The researchers conclude that “usage of all of the tools described here is very small compared to the total population of approximately 2 billion Internet users globally or even the population of users in countries that aggressively filter the Internet.” Reasons for such infrequent use may include the fact that “some combination of the usability, performance, and security of the tools is not good enough that users find the benefit of circumventing filtering worth the cost of using the tools.”
Moreover, the researchers note that “three of the nations that have at least 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.”
Tags: technology, human rights, China, communication, telecommunications
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Harvard University study "2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times article "U.S. Underwrites Detours Around Censors."
- Use findings from the article and the study in a news analysis article or blog post that focuses on a new instance of Internet filtering globally.
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.