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Internet Freedom: Beyond Circumvention

Secretary Clinton’s recent speech on Internet Freedom has signaled a strong interest from the US State Department in promoting the use of the internet to promote political reforms in closed societies. It makes sense that the State Department would look to support existing projects to circumvent internet censorship. The New York Times reports that a group of senators is urging the Secretary to apply existing funding to support the development and expansion of censorship circumvention programs, including Tor, Psiphon and Freegate.

I’ve spent a good part of the last couple of years studying internet circumvention systems. My colleagues Hal Roberts, John Palfrey and I released a study last year that compared the strengths and weaknesses of different circumvention tools. Some of my work at Berkman is funded by a US state department grant that focuses on continuing to study and evaluate these sorts of tools and I spend a lot of time trying to coordinate efforts between tool developers and people who need access to circumvention tools to publish sensitive content.

I strongly believe that we need strong, anonymized and useable censorship circumvention tools. But I also believe that we need lots more than censorship circumvention tools, and I fear that both funders and technologists may overfocus on this one particular aspect of internet freedom at the expense of other avenues. I wonder whether we’re looking closely enough at the fundamental limitations of circumvention as a strategy and asking ourselves what we’re hoping internet freedom will do for users in closed societies.

So here’s a provocation: We can’t circumvent our way around internet censorship.

I don’t mean that internet censorship circumvention systems don’t work. They do – our research tested several popular circumvention tools in censored nations and discovered that most can retrieve blocked content from behind the Chinese firewall or a similar system. (There are problems with privacy, data leakage, the rendering of certain types of content, and particularly with usability and performance, but the systems can circumvent censorship.) What I mean is this – we couldn’t afford to scale today’s existing circumvention tools to “liberate” all of China’s internet users even if they all wanted to be liberated.

Circumvention systems share a basic mode of operation – they act as proxies to let you retrieve blocked content. A user is blocked from accessing a website by her ISP or that ISP’s ISP. She wants to read a page from Human Rights Watch’s webserver, which is accessible at IP address But that IP address is on a national blacklist, and she’s prevented from receiving any content from it. So she points her browser to a proxy server at another address – say – and asks a program on that server to retrieve a page from the HRW server. Assuming that isn’t on the national blacklist, she should be able to receive the HRW page via the proxy.

During the transaction, the proxy is acting like an internet service provider. Its ability to provide reliable service to its users is constrained by bandwidth – bandwidth to access the destination site and to deliver the content to the proxy user. Bandwidth is costly in aggregate, and it costs real money to run a proxy that’s heavily used.

Some systems have tried to reduce these costs by asking volunteers to share them – Psiphon, in its first design, used home computers hosted by volunteers around the world as proxies, and used their consumer bandwidth to access the public internet. Unfortunately, in many countries, consumer internet connections are optimized to download content and are much slower when they are uploading content. These proxies could get the homepage at hrw.org pretty quickly, but they took a very long time to deliver the page to the user behind the firewall. Psiphon is no longer primarily focused on trying to make proxies hosted by volunteers work. Tor is, but Tor nodes are frequently hosted by universities and companies who have access to large pools of bandwidth. Still, available bandwidth is a major constraint to the usability of the Tor system. The most usable circumvention systems today – VPN tools like Relakks or Witopia – charge users significant sums annually to defray bandwidth costs.

Let’s assume that systems like Tor, Psiphon and Freegate receive additional funding from the State Department. How much would it cost to provide proxy internet access for… well, China? China reports 384 million internet users, meaning we’re talking about running an ISP capable of serving more than 25 times as many users as the largest US ISP. According to CNNIC, China consumes 866,367 Mbps of international internet bandwidth. It’s hard to get estimates for what ISPs pay for bandwidth, though conventional wisdom suggests prices between $0.05 and $0.10 per gigabyte. Using $0.05 as a cost per gigabyte, the cost to serve the Internet to China would be $13,608,000 per month, $163.3 million a year in pure bandwidth charges, not counting the costs of proxy servers, routers, system administrators, customer service. Faced with a bill of that magnitude, the $45 million US senators are asking Clinton to spend quickly looks pretty paltry.

There’s an additional complication – we’re not just talking about running an ISP – we’re talking about running an ISP that’s very likely to be abused by bad actors. Spammers, fraudsters and other internet criminals use proxy servers to conduct their activities, both to protect their identities and to avoid systems on free webmail providers, for instance, which prevent users from signing up for dozens of accounts by limiting an IP address to a certain number of signups in a limited time period. Wikipedia found that many users used open proxies to deface their system and now reserve the right to block proxy users from editing pages. Proxy operators have a tough balancing act – for their proxies to be useful, people need to be able to use them to access sites like Wikipedia or YouTube… but if people use those proxies to abuse those sites, the proxy will be blocked. As such, proxy operators can find themselves at war with their own users, trying to ban bad actors to keep the tool useful for the rest of the users.

I’m skeptical that the US State Department can or wants to build or fund a free ISP that can be used by millions of simultaneous users, many of whom may be using it to commit clickfraud or send spam. I know – because I’ve talked with many of them – that the people who fund blocking-resistant internet proxies don’t think of what they’re doing in these terms. Instead, they assume that proxies are used by users only in special circumstances, to access blocked content.

Here’s the problem. A nation like China is blocking a lot of content. As Donnie Dong notes in a recent blogpost, five of the ten most popular websites worldwide are blocked in China. Those sites include YouTube and Facebook, sites that eat bandwidth through large downloads and long sessions. Perhaps it would be realistic to act as an ISP to China if we were just providing access to Human Rights Watch – it’s not realistic if we’re providing access to YouTube.

Proxy operators have dealt with this question by putting constraints on the use of their tools. Some proxy operators block access to YouTube because it’s such a bandwidth hog. Others block access to pornography, both because it uses bandwidth and to protect the sensibilities of their sponsors. Others constrain who can use their tools, limiting access to the tools to people coming from Iranian or Chinese IPs, trying to reduce bandwidth use by American high school kids who’ve got YouTube blocked by their school. In deciding who or what to block, proxy operators are offering their personal answers to a complicated question: What parts of the internet are we trying to open up to people in closed societies? As we’ll address in a moment, that’s not such an easy question to answer.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we could afford to proxy China, Iran, Myanmar and others’ international traffic. We figure out how to keep these proxies unblocked and accessible (it’s not easy – the operators of heavily used proxy systems are engaged in a fast-moving cat and mouse game) and we determine how to mitigate the abuse challenges presented by open proxies. We’ve still got problems.

Most internet traffic is domestic. In China, we estimate (Hal’s got a paper coming out shortly) that roughly 95% of total traffic is within the country. Domestic censorship matters a great deal, and perhaps a great deal more than censorship at national borders. As Rebecca MacKinnon documented in “China’s Censorship 2.0“, Chinese companies censor user-generated content in a complex, decentralized way. As a result, a good deal of controversial material is never published in the first place, either because it’s blocked from publication or because authors decline to publish it for fear of having their blog account locked or cancelled. We might assume that if Chinese users had unfettered access to Blogger, they’d publish there. Perhaps not – people use the tools that are easiest to use and that their friends use. A seasoned Chinese dissident might use Blogger, knowing she’s likely to be censored – an average user, posting photos of his cat, would more likely use a domestic platform and not consider the possibility of censorship until he found himself posting controversial content.

In promoting internet freedom, we need to consider strategies to overcome censorship inside closed societies. We also need to address “soft censorship”, the co-opting of online public spaces by authoritarian regimes, who sponsor pro-government bloggers, seed sympathetic message board threads, and pay for sympathetic comments. (Evgeny Morozov offers a thoroughly dark view of authoritarian use of social media in How Dictators Watch Us On The Web.)

We also need to address a growing menace to online speech – attacks on sites that host controversial speech. When Turkey blocks YouTube to prevent Turkish citizens from seeing videos that defame Ataturk, they prevent 20 million Turkish internet users from seeing the content. When someone – the Myanmar government, patriotic Burmese, mischievous hackers – mount a distributed denial of service attack on Irrawaddy (an online newspaper highly critical of the Myanmar government), they (temporarily) prevent everyone from seeing it.

Circumvention tools help Turks who want to see YouTube get around a government block. But they don’t help Americans, Chinese or Burmese see Irrawaddy if the site has been taken down by DDoS or hacking attacks. Publishers of controversial online content have begun to realize that they’re not just going to face censorship by national filtering systems – they’re going to face a variety of technical and legal attacks that seek to make their servers inaccessible.

There’s quite a bit publishers can do to increase the resilience of their sites to DDoS attack and to make their sites more difficult to filter. To avoid blockage in Turkey, YouTube could increase the number of IP addresses that lead to the webserver and use a technique called “fast-flux DNS” to give the Turkish government more IP addresses to block. They could maintain a mailing list to alert users to unblocked IP addresses where they could access YouTube, or create a custom application which disseminates unblocked IPs to YouTube users who download the ap. These are all techniques employed by content sites that are frequently blocked in closed societies.

YouTube doesn’t take these anti-blocking measures for at least two reasons. One, they’ve generally preferred to negotiate with nations who filter the internet to try to make their sites reachable again than to work against them by fighting filtering. (This attitude may be changing now that Google has announced their intention not to cooperate with Chinese censorship.) Second, YouTube doesn’t really have an economic incentive to be unblocked in Turkey. If anything, being blocked in Turkey (and perhaps even in China) may be to their economic advantage.

Sites that enable user-created content are supported by advertising traffic. Advertisers are generally more excited about reaching users in the US (who’ve got credit cards, more disposable income and are inclined to buy online) than users in China or Turkey. Some suspect that the introduction of “lite” versions of services like Facebook are designed to serve users in the developing world at lower cost, since those users rarely create income. In economic terms, it may be hard to convince Facebook, YouTube and others to continue providing services to closed societies, where they have a tough time selling ads. And we may need to ask more of them – to take steps to ensure that they remain accessible and useful in censorious countries.

In short:
– Internet circumvention is hard. It’s expensive. It can make it easier for people to send spam and steal identities.
– Circumventing censorship through proxies just gives people access to international content – it doesn’t address domestic censorship, which likely affects the majority of people’s internet behavior.
– Circumventing censorship doesn’t offer a defense against DDoS or other attacks that target a publisher.

To figure out how to promote internet freedom, I believe we need to start addressing the question: “How do we think the Internet changes closed societies?” In other words, do we have a “theory of change” behind our desire to ensure people in Iran, Burma, China, etc. can access the internet? Why do we believe this is a priority for the State Department or for public diplomacy as a whole?

I think much work on internet censorship isn’t motivated by a theory of change – it’s motivated by a deeply-held conviction (one I share) that the ability to share information is a basic human right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The internet is the most efficient system we’ve ever built to allow people to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, and therefore we need to ensure everyone has unfettered internet access. The problem with the Article 19 approach to censorship circumvention is that it doesn’t help us prioritize. It simply makes it imperative that we solve what may be an unsolvable problem.

If we believe that access to the internet will change closed societies in a particular way, we can prioritize access to those aspects of the internet. Our theory of change helps us figure out what we must provide access to. The four theories I list below are rarely explicitly stated, but I believe they underly much of the work behind censorship circumvention.

The suppressed information theory: if we can provide certain suppressed information to people in closed societies, they’ll rise up and challenge their leaders and usher in a different government. We might choose to call this the “Hungary ’56 theory” – reports of struggles against communist governments around the world, reported into Hungary via Radio Free Europe, encouraged Hungarians to rebel against their leaders. (Unfortunately, the US didn’t support the revolutionaries militarily – as many in Hungary had expected – and the revolution was brutally quashed by a Soviet invasion.)

I generally term this the “North Korea theory”, because I think a state as closed as North Korea might be a place where un-suppressed information – about the fiscal success of South Korea, for instance – could provoke revolution. (Barbara Demick’s beautiful piece in the New Yorker, “The Good Cook“, gives a sense for how little information most North Koreans have about the outside world and how different the world looks from Seoul.) But even North Korea is less informationally isolated than we think – Dong-A Ilbo reports an “information belt” along the North Korea/China border where calls on smuggled mobile phones are possible from North to South Korea. Other nations are far more open – my friends in China tend to be extremely well informed about both domestic and international politics, both through using circumvention tools and because Chinese media reports a great deal of domestic and international news.

It’s possible that access to information is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for political revolution. It’s also possible that we overestimate the power and potency of suppressed information, especially as information is so difficult to suppress in a connected age.

The Twitter revolution theory: if citizens in closed societies can use the powerful communications tools made possible by the Internet, they can unite and overthrow their oppressors. This is the theory that led the State Department to urge Twitter to put off a period of scheduled downtime during the Iran elections protests. While it’s hard to make the case that technologies of connection are going to bring down the Iranian government (see Cameron Abadi’s piece in FP on the limitations of using Facebook to organize in Iran), good counterexamples exist, like the role of the mobile phone in helping to topple President Estrada in the Philippines.

There’s been a great deal of enthusiasm in the popular press for the Twitter revolution theory, but careful analysis reveals some limitations. The communications channels opened online tend to be compromised quickly, used for disinformation and for monitoring activists. And when protests get out of hand, governments of closed societies don’t hesitate to pull the plug on networks – China has blocked internet access in Xinjiang for months, and Ethiopia turned off SMS on mobile phone networks for years after they were used to organize street protests.

The public sphere theory: Communication tools may not lead to revolution immediately, but they provide a new rhetorical space where a new generation of leaders can think and speak freely. In the long run, this ability to create a new public sphere, parallel to the one controlled by the state, will empower a new generation of social actors, though perhaps not for many years.

Marc Lynch made a pretty persuasive case for this theory in a talk last year about online activism in the Middle East. It’s possible to make this case by looking at samizdat (self-published, clandestine media) in the former Soviet Union, which was probably more important as a space for free expression than it was as a channel for disseminating suppressed information. The emergence of leader like Vaclav Havel, whose authority was rooted in cultural expression as well as political power, makes the case that simply speaking out is powerful. But the long timescale of this theory makes it hard to test.

The theory we accept shapes our policy decisions. If we believe that disseminating suppressed information is critical – either to the public at large or to a small group of influencers – we might focus our efforts on spreading content from Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. Indeed, this is how many government forays into censorship circumvention began – national news services began supporting circumvention tools so their content (painstakingly created in languages like Burmese or Farsi) would be accessible in closed societies. This is a very efficient approach to anticensorship – we can ignore many of the problems associated with abusing proxies and focus on prioritizing news over other high-bandwidth uses, like the video of the cat flushing the toilet. Unfortunately, we’ve got a long track record that shows that this form of anticensorship doesn’t magically open closed regimes, which suggests that increasing our bet on this strategy might be a poor idea.

If we adopt the Twitter Revolution theory, we should focus on systems that allow for rapid communication within trusted networks. This might mean tools like Twitter or Facebook, but probably means tools like LiveJournal and Yahoo! Groups which gain their utility through exclusivity, allowing small groups to organize outside the gaze of the authorities. If we adopt the public sphere approach, we want to open any technologies that allow public communication and debate – blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and virtually anything else that fits under the banner of Web 2.0.

What does all this mean in terms of how the State Department should allocate their money to promote Internet Freedom? My goal was primarily to outline the questions they should be considering, rather than offering specific prescriptions. But here are some possible implications of these questions:

– We need to continue supporting circumvention efforts, at least in the short term. But we need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that we can “solve” censorship through circumvention. We should support circumvention until we find better technical and policy solutions to censorship, not because we can tear down the Great Firewall by spending more.

– If we want more people using circumvention tools, we need to find ways to make them fiscally sustainable. Sustainable circumvention is becoming an attractive business for some companies – it needs to be part of a comprehensive internet freedom strategy, and we need to develop strategies that are sustainable and provide low/zero cost access to users in closed societies.

– As we continue to fund circumvention, we need to address usage of these tools to send spam, commit fraud and steal personal data. We might do this by relying less on IP addresses as an extensive, fundamental means of regulating bad behavior… but we’ve got to find a solution that protects networks against abuse while maintaining the possibility of anonymity, a difficult balancing act.

– We need to shift our thinking from helping users in closed societies access blocked content to helping publishers reach all audiences. In doing so, we may gain those publishers as a valuable new set of allies as well as opening a new class of technical solutions.

– If our goal is to allow people in closed societies to access an online public sphere, or to use online tools to organize protests, we need to bring the administrators of these tools into the dialog. Secretary Clinton suggests that we make free speech part of the American brand identity – let’s find ways to challenge companies to build blocking resistance into their platforms and to consider internet freedom to be a central part of their business mission. We need to address the fact that making their platforms unblockable has a cost for content hosts and that their business models currently don’t reward them for providing service to these users.

– The US government should treat internet filtering – and more aggressive hacking and DDoS attacks – as a barrier to trade. The US should strongly pressure governments in open societies like Australia and France to resist the temptation to restrict internet access, as their behavior helps China and Iran make the case that their censorship is in line with international norms. And we need to fix US treasury regulations make it difficult and legally ambiguous for companies like Microsoft and projects like SourceForge to operate in closed societies. If we believe in Internet Freedom, a first step needs to be rethinking these policies so they don’t hurt ordinary internet users.

The danger in heeding Secretary Clinton’s call is that we increase our speed, marching in the wrong direction. As we embrace the goal of Internet Freedom, now is the time to ask what we’re hoping to accomplish and to shape our strategy accordingly.

Thanks to Hal Roberts, Janet Haven and Rebecca MacKinnon for help editing and improving this post. They’re responsible for the good parts – you can blame the rest on me.