Expert Commentary

Internet filtering and circumvention tool usage report

2010 report by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society on global usage of Web-based tools designed to circumvent Internet content filtering.

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