JulieAnn McKellogg | Washington
While it’s hard to generalize across the nations, it seems apparent the Internet and digital networks continue to play a serious role in helping pro-democracy activists organize and communicate. This, despite efforts by a growing number of governments to limit, censor, or totally block portions of the web.
This week the non-profit human rights group Freedom House released a report detailing which online circumvention tools are best for helping activists break through the censors’ walls.*
Not surprisingly, determining the best tool to use depends on where you are, and what you’re doing.
Based on a survey of Internet users in Iran, Azerbaijan, China and Burma, the report found 11 circumvention tools to be effective, and outlines the advantages and disadvantages of each. But the report authors go further, providing a matrix to allow users to pick which tool would be best for them based on their activities, amount of privacy and security desired, and devices used.
For example, someone wanting to access or download material already on the web who doesn’t need much privacy should consider Freegate, while another wanting more privacy should look at Tor or Ultrasurf. On the other side, Psiphon might best serve a user wanting to upload text or video with minimal security demands, but JonDonym is better tailored to those with high security concerns but slow processing ability.
But report co-author Cormac Callanan is quick to qualify these recommendations.
“Circumvention is not security,” says Callanan, head of Dublin-based Aconite Internet Solutions. “Security, anonymity and privacy are important and do need to be addressed. For end users, we can only repeat that security is more than a single circumvention tool. And that it becomes a way of life.”
One surprising finding of the report found users preferred speed over security in accessing the net. Callanan says that may seem counter-intuitive, but locals better understand their unique censorship situation and its consequences.
“They have more real time and local knowledge about what is happening in their government censorship system, or the local policing or the local monitoring than many of us do internationally.”
The U.S. State Department-funded report found that security is more important for users who are sending material rather than those accessing and viewing information on the Internet.
Freedom House’s Project Director for Internet Freedom, Robert Guerra, calls circumvention software “…not only for activists”:
“I think to popularize the tool, we have to depoliticize. It’s not to access blocked sites. It’s to access things that may be blocked that aren’t necessarily threatening. One may want to access cooking YouTube videos, but if YouTube is blocked, that is a bad thing.”
Karen Rielly, development director for the Tor Project, a circumvention software company, says that even her organization can not see who is using the software:
“Tor separates where you are going online from where you are coming from. Its hides your IP address, which can be linked to your physical location.”
Rielly notes that Tor and similar products were widely used in Egypt prior to the government taking the country offline during recent protests. Egypt was not the first country to nearly shut down its Internet access. Burma, Nepal and China have used similar tactics.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said restrictions on Internet activity that prohibit free expression is one of three worrisome trends concerning human rights.
*Full Disclosure: The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors – VOA’s parent organization – has been active in promoting circumvention technologies and has relationships with Tor, Freegate and others. As part of the budget deal reached last week, Congress agreed with President Obama to provide $10 million to the BBG to continue its circumvention and Internet privacy work. The U.S. State Department and the BBG have both been seeking funds for such efforts.