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 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.

This entry was posted in Geekery, Human Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Internet Freedom: Beyond Circumvention

  1. This is great, Ethan, and I’m so glad you mentioned the need for rethinking export control/treasury policies (which don’t just help the free expression cause, but could go a long way toward eradicating the rampant piracy that occurs in economically closed societies where certain software/music/etc can’t be legally purchased).

  2. Cos says:

    “I dont mean that internet censorship systems dont work.”
    I think you meant “censorship circumvention systems” there?

  3. darknet is better says:

    anonymous p2p darknet might be another direction. The reason people need to use proxy is not because people are interested in foreign news. Its because there is no uncensored and safe place to publish/acquire reliable information or promote free speech in his own contry. darknet can solve this problem at very large scale without causing sky-high proxy traffic. and its a preparation against possible complete blockage.

    active national firewall like gfw is also a massive weapon of dos. Think about it, when gfw redirect 1/4 of its dns traffic to certain sites.

  4. gregorylent says:

    dealing with the symptoms never really works in any system, whether the body or with organizations ..

    if censorship is fear in action, have to make the censors feel safe .. not possible totally, but no one talks much about this

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  6. I would tend to agree with what you’re saying, but there’s some important differences that go to the heart of some of your prejudices.

    1. The Clinton Administration, er I mean the Obama Administration’s new-found obsession with a different version of proseltyzing democracy abroad is to be greeted (embraced as inevitable) if it turns out this time it will have less idiotic expenses and grants for our own consultants and help more people broadly.

    2. The Administration should not be religiously devoted only to opensource software solutions like Tor, heavily boosted by their proseltyizers, and should look at a variety of solutions, for the reasons you’ve noted, and for others — the uneven service, ballooning budgets that occur with “free” software requiring constant tweaking by paid devs, etc.

    3. I have to chuckle at you, who is doubtlessly a booster of the concept of “Net Neutrality,” suddenly deciding that for a free Internet project like this, the operators have to think about how they can supply to China, but not Youtube. Since a lot of dissident material is posted on YouTube, you may have to revise this.

    4. Yes, the “soft” more insidious censorship is really more the problem. And that’s why the U.S. should take on the public diplomacy challenge and develop sturdier and more frequent rhetoric, and not abandon the field in situations like the Russian-American summit, where Obama regrettably conceded that the Khodorkovsky case as an “internal affair” for the Russian judicial system, instead of seizing the opportunity to call for universal standards for judicial systems everywhere, including Russia where they are violated more than in the U.S. — and on a case with huge ramifications for business and in general intellectual freedom.

    5. There can’t be mere reliance on technical solutions like TOR or VPN or even Twitter, but there have to be a lot of redundant and even old fashioned methods like email relays and face-to-face visits. Mobile and Skype could be used more than computers.

    6. The Global Voices project of yours is more important than ever to have translations, aggregates, excerpts appearing on other sites so that if a site is taken down there are alternatives. And there should be a lot more pre-planning for this now by State and international groups for example with Belarus and the forthcoming elections.

    7. When you start demanding a theory of change, you are back to your New Class politics. You don’t seem to like it when all kinds of turbulent social movements are freed and do all kinds of things you haven’t taught in your workshops that you control. Tools of change will not always work your way and may change even you. What we need isn’t so much a theory of change as a theory of process, how we will manage good or bad change yet adhere to universal human rights principles and the rule of law. The rule of law is not a theory of change.

    And I won’t let you undermine Art. 19 with a new technocratic claw-back that says we need to “prioritize”. It is not for you to do the prioritizing.

    The problem of opening up listserves and blog sites and Twitter is that Hizb-ut-Tahir is served just as much as local human rights groups. But the way to combat that is to step up and participate in the debate and affirm universality, not curate and ban and mute. You are not converting the extremists but talking over their shoulder.

    As for your theories:

    A. Suppressed information and ideas often seem to be available — but not really, not in a live and vibrant way, not in a *debate* in which the conservatives and cynics in fact have really been challenged. I debated a snotty Russian tekkie who essentially supports Surkovism or “sovereign democracy” (state-directed change) recently, and he says yes, he know about the arrest of this or that blogger or activist or yes, he has read Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Little good that it does. What is needed then is debate framed with the problem of the corporativist new Russian in mind on places like Facebook where, as the Iranian students have pointed out, you can deter the sock-puppets and KGB infiltrators better because they are networks of identifiable friends and work colleagues.

    There is never a scarcity of people willing to RT or provide workshops on lovely new social media; what there is a scarcity of, is people willing to engage in intellectual debate. That debate really should start right at home where NGOs and think tanks never have it very critically for fear of losing their grants.

    B. Aren’t we done yet claiming “the State Department” told Twitter to do something? A kid at the State Department who is part of the Goverati unelected wired asked Twitter to do something — difference.

    And just because Twitter can’t get jailed Iranian Twitterer out of jail today doesn’t mean we should press on with it. The problem with you and Evgeny Morozov is that you really don’t seem to like the untidyness and grubby work of social movements — you prefer lecturing at them — and you don’t really feel like being in them and laboring — which is pretty unglamorous and boring and most of the time and has no grant. Understood — each to his own. Yet your quietism is depressing for new generations of students who then are let off the hook for any sense of accountability and need for civic involvement and even activism.

    Once again, Twitter doesn’t make revolutions, people do, as RFE/RL’s Luke Alnutt as wonderfully said. And those people make them best when they have a very healthy and diverse diaspora, emigration, friends, colleagues abroad, sympathetic viewers, etc. etc. It is for their sake that you stage the “Twitter Revolution,” not because you don’t think the government goons won’t turn off the mobile in a day, of course they do. But relays and proxies and such then do reach the Twitter exosphere and that’s what is important.

    Ethan, you always seem to discount this very vital part of any social movement and seem to discount a Twitter revo unless it is beamed directly from Red Square in real time.

    C. You don’t have to wait for years for the public sphere, it is alive and well in places such as the Russian Live Journal space. And you’re wrong about samizdat being more important for “self expression”. In earlier days there was a lot of retyping of things like novels and the Gulag archipelago. But in the 1970s-1980s a good deal of samizdat was information-packed. It had to be — people would be willing to go to jail for getting out the word of the documented abuses of a minority like the Crimean Tatars, or news of a suppressed workers’ strike in the Urals, or the arrests and trials of the Helsinki group members — but they wouldn’t do that for the sake of “self-expression” of themselves and others. The Chronicle of Current Events the leading samizdat publication of those years was all hard news, not poetry.

    Surely you realize we don’t have to just pick one of your theories, but they could be adapted and mixed and matched as the situation suits.

    Again, people form communities that are alternative to the state and begin to create a substrate for civil society by being able to publish the picture of the video of the cat flushing the toilet — perhaps it is a satire for their government’s spending on wasteful projects. So you have to be willing to support the Internet as we have it with all its features in other countries and not be a net nanny about what content you find “socially useful” or not. The bloggers jailed in Azerbaijan for example made use of their own user-generated pictures and videos with satire and humour, not a dry Human Rights Watch report.

    I couldn’t emphasize enough that the key to developing alternative information systems to dictatorships is redundancy and diversity and persistence, never reliance on only one system or channel or theory.

    As for your prescriptions:

    1. If we provide circumvention technology to communities in other countries, they can take care of prioritizing without you having to fret about cats flushing toilets. And again — no religious zealotry about open source as “free or low cost” because the VPN solution simply may work better and faster and the grant money to maintain it really not the cost imagined.

    2. “Shifting your thinking from helping those trying to access block content” applies only to some educated strategically thinking elite in those countries. The average user is more motivated about how he can get around a block and see a Youtube than he is to strategically plan his viral dissemination strategy through his blog and Twitter.

    3. I’m not very keen on this notion of “bringing the administrators of these tools” into the dialogue if you mean not lovely open critical dialogue, but a wedge for Silicon Valley, creator of these tools and holder of very distinct agendas and ideologies, to nose in under the tent of public diplomacy and then make the world safe for Google to buy Yandex or Russian oligarchs to buy more shares of Facebook. I’d rather the challenge here in including Silicon Valley in this dialogue be about corporate accountability, Yahoo not selling Chinese dissidents down the river, and Google funding alternative programs for Chinese searchers and bloggers if they shut down in China.

    You’re also not weaving in your previous points, the fear of how spammers and pornographers use the circumvention tools. The big brands are not going to want to appear as if they create tools to do this. I really do want to see how you square the circle of Net Neutrality idealism with this problem, as it is not easy.

    4. No to moral equivalence! The efforts of Australia to block child pornography are not a signal to Russia and China to block bloggers, that they must “liberate” themelves from or lose all moral credibility. Baloney. They are a discretionary move that is the kind of real-life squaring of the circle that real government are forced to do, in order to create open spaces free of predators, pornographers, and spammers which eliminate freedom for others.

    Your theory of freedom needs some repairs. Freedom is not just freeware, opensource, “information wants to be free” — it’s actually your tropism for those cultural values that sets you up then soon to abhor the concept of the State Dept. funding people in China to post cats flushing toilets or your sudden spasm of moral equivalence between Iran and Australia.

    Geeks always intended they only meant information to be free *for them according to their agendas* and then they don’t like the results of having to universalize this. The reality is that opensource=closed society eventually, both in the production of the software and in the authoritarian culture it creates. So that means you need a sturdier defense of liberalism in the public space than you may be prepared to make, which yes, would mean not such facile support of Net Neutrality (net consumption) and the burden of moderation and curation. I have yet to see a Gov 2.0 site that successfully faces the challenge of creating an open space for public discourse while not stepping on the First Amendment.

    I have a very practical demand for the State Department programs: end the pass given to the government of Egypt in vetoing which NGOs get U.S. aid and in controlling public diplomacy programs. Egypt never helps the state of Israel to the extent ever imagined such as to justify this continuing scandal of supporting the Egyptian government’s anti-liberal agenda, and fueling the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to succeed because they can incite dissent against the cronyism of the Egyptian government and USAID. This is a test case for the whole world and for the policy. If the U.S. could stop this support of illiberal forces in Egypt, under the misguided belief this is a real-politik required to sustain Israel, we could see some change. In fact, I believe it would better sustain Israel for the U.S. to confront the Egyptian bully and its deleterious effect at the UN, especially with ideological campaigns like “defamatio of religion” — a campaign the U.S. is losing to, because the Obama adminitration isn’t stepping up to the challenge.

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  8. eli says:

    Thanks Ethan, great post. I will be very brief after the long-winded post 6…The Australian censorship plan (not sure if it is yet implemented) is to block illegal content. Under Australian law that means adult rated content that does not have an adult verification system. This means (on top of the current child abuse type content already blacklisted) that adult pornographic sites will be blocked unless they have a credit card interface which provides level of guarantee that an adult is probably viewing the content…so can you really say this kind of censorship in Australia provides justification for Chinese levels of political and social censorship? I think this is unreasonable. Whether or not I agree with the Australian censorship is not the point…the point is the comparison is unjustified and often the ideas surrounding it are even quite hysterical and ridiculous (not here but in many, many other places online)…what if Australian type levels of censorship actually provided less justification for censors who claim they are protecting children? Could that not equally be true?

  9. Nathan Kurz says:

    Catherine —

    Your reply is colorful, and you’ve obviously thought about these issues, but I’m having trouble following your argument.

    You start with “you have to be willing to support the Internet as we have it with all its features in other countries and not be a net nanny”, and then seem to argue that there is no equivalence between Australia censoring pornography and China censoring, well, according to them, pornography. Then you coat-rack a conclusion about US aid to Egypt which I have trouble relating to Ethan’s argument at all, other than maybe implying that the real goal in all this is to sustain Israel?

    Could you try again, perhaps by responding directly to the bold-faced sentences in his piece? Or by providing his hidden (very subtly self-censored?) 4th theory of change? Or do you disagree with his assertion that it’s good to have a theory of what change you are hoping to produce before enacting policy?

    Also, it might help to read Ethan’s ‘Cute Cat Theory of the Internet’ before accusing him of ‘fretting’ and ‘abhoring’ any particular approaches to internet freedom. He’s a pragmatic lad:

  10. Darius Cuplinskas says:

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. The one bit of your argument that troubles me is the fixation on regime change as the ultimate goal and benchmark of success of circumvention projects. I suggest it’s time to abandon that paradigm, both for circumvention activists, and for the State Department too – for several reasons.

    The most powerful argument for circumvention is that it expands the potential for human well-being in oppressive societies, regardless of whether it contributes to political change. We don’t support human rights advocacy because it’s an instrument of revolution – it’s not – and we shouldn’t be making regime change the focus of freedom of expression advocacy. Tactically, framing it that way is probably self-defeating; and politically, it ties anti-censorship efforts to a pretty disastrous history of foreign interventionism.

  11. Catherine,

    I’m curious – do you suggest that Australia’s exorbitant spending on a barely-functioning filter that will not do anything to actually stop the creation of child pornography is justified?

  12. Kerry McNamara says:

    Ethan, a wonderfully thought-provoking post, as always. Glad to hear you mention theories of change. They can sometimes be a dry exercise, and it’s important to know when one is stepping over the threshold from theory of change into social engineering, but they’re valuable in helping us be sober and focused. In the ICT-for-development field where I have labored for quite a while, the absence (particularly in the early years) of coherent and credible theories of change has been one of the greatest weaknesses, leading to a flood of unsustainable projects. I suppose the temptation has been, at times, to see ICT as a magic wand, but we all know that complex social problems rarely yield to easy solutions. All the more reason to look for the real leverage points of change. Thanks as ever for your stimulating thoughts. Kerry McNamara

  13. R Eses says:

    Great article. Too bad some readers in closed societies will not see it because there is no RSS feed from your blog.

  14. I don’t believe that filters “don’t stop” things. They deter, and they provide a means of marking crime when it is discovered. You don’t attempt 0/1 failsafe systems in software. You go for a percentage of deterrence.

    I also think you can scarcely compare the Australian government’s effort to filter child pornography as on par with Russia’s or Iran’s censorship of the Internet.
    and that’s the point here

  15. Nathan,

    You’re having trouble reading a long answer that debates point-by-point very directly — understood, as you are used to a media diet of posts no bigger than your hand. I can’t help you here.

    There isn’t any equivalence between Australia censoring pornography and China censoring political speech. If you have trouble not understanding that Chinese dissident speech is not pornography, and that Chinese government claims of “law” in doing so are false and fraudulent in light of international human rights standards by which China is bound, I also can’t help you with your ethics challenges. Neither you nor the Chinese get to hide behind a claim of cultural relativism here.

    Ethan’s arguments have direct application in aid terms. The U.S. has caved to Egyptian pressure not to fund any NGOs independent of the Egyptian government. But if you want to free up the Internet, you have to be willing to challenge the Egyptian government exactly in that area. The U.S. gives aid to Egypt because they think it helps prop up at least a non-directly-hostile Arabic government regarding Israel. Yet it’s time to give all that another look, as Egypt is a bad actor on all these issues of civil society, its support of Israel isn’t so grand, and yes, supporting Israel isn’t the evil cause some seem to imply — and again, I can’t help those with pro-Palestinian sentiments.

    I’ve responded very directly to Ethan, he knows it, I know it, you know it. But like so many forums-dwellers, you think that if you pick on style or delivery or format, you can substitute it for a knock-down of substance. You don’t agree with what I said. That’s fine. But it isn’t because I said it obliquely — it’s just because you don’t like what I said.

    I’m all for theories of change– Ethan’s theories aren’t new, and aren’t about change. More than anything, it’s about sustaining his new class of technologists as rulers.

    I also don’t care how cute Ethan’s cat is –he’s definitely fretting here, and in ways that simply don’t gibe with his net neutrality jazz, so I’m calling him on it.

  16. Darius,

    I share your concern about misguided “regime change” exercises which litter American administrations in recent years.

    But the problem with your take on this is that it leads to quietism and a believe that people can flex human rights expression “just a little” and be happy “being a little bit pregnant” for some unknown duration. The reality is, if these governments were in fact to permit people to exercise human rights, they would be transformed. Indeed, they would change. In fact, even by starting with just complying with their own laws, revolutions become possible.

    When countries have changed, as they have in Latin America, Eurasia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, it’s seldom because they could survive on partialities like a Dubchek or a Gorbachev, but because they changed governments at root, like Yeltsin or Havel or Mandela.

    Regimes change. It’s ok for them to change. It’s ok for citizens to fight for them to change peacefully. A key way they change is by freeing the means of communication.

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  18. Kaitlin says:

    This is genius and shoutout to Jillian for sharing it on Google Reader. I wish you could only find a way to explain those ideas to the next generation rather than academics. Political theory is awesome but youth culture is the evolving outernet that Internet freedom needs to vibe with to be meaningful in the long-run. Otherwise, the cultural cues might get lost over time as some “global” distortion or buried in the ‘tubes as noise. That said, this post is none of those things from where I sit. My only concern is that large scale politics and big picture change might be limited to Internet or academic cultures. In other words, the places where people have a sense of agency to effect a change already. Perhaps to study cultural roots, you’d have to go underground to lay out the argument for youth. There are many local approaches but from a global perspective, you might want to check out the word “revolution” in every punk documentary SPIN Earth listed in their best of 2009 list. Here is the link:

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  20. Nathan Kurz says:

    Hi Catherine —

    Your style and format are fine; it’s the effectiveness of the argument that I’m questioning. And not because it’s wrong, but because I still don’t see the connection to Ethan’s conclusions. It’s possible that our goals are simply different.

    In my view, Ethan writes this blog post in an effort to refine his ideas on what would constitute effective US policy on internet censorship. He’ll use these ideas for future book chapters, future talks to policy makers, and to help determine his future research priorities. My goal is to help him refine these ideas so as to help him propose an effective policy.

    Ethan offers a framework for evaluating such policies: if we do A, X will likely result; if we do B, then Y is more likely to come about. If X is a better outcome than Y, then we should concentrate our efforts on A rather than B. One needs to determine the possible actions A, B, and C; determine the likely outcomes X, Y, and Z; and then rank the outcomes by their desirability, side effects, and their likelihood of coming to pass.

    So while US support of a repressive Egyptian regime might be a mistake, I don’t see it as especially relevant to future US policy toward internet censorship in China. Equally, I don’t see it as relevant whether Ethan maintains consistency with previous statements regarding net neutrality. Isn’t the goal to improve one’s thinking, rather than merely maintaining consistency?

    Ethan’s question in the post was “What does all this mean in terms of how the State Department should allocate their money to promote Internet Freedom?” My response to you was to ask you to address the same question, ideally within the framework that Ethan proposed: if C, then Z, with this likelihood and these side effects.

    My request is simple and genuine. You’ve obviously thought about these issues, and whether your previous response was ‘correct’ or not, I don’t think it managed to change Ethan’s thinking, or the contents of his future chapters or talks. That is your goal, right?

  21. Oscar Howell says:

    What is it that the US means when it proposes to fight for Internet freedom? The aim seems to be more about control of the Internet and to advance a kind of freedom that is compliant with its diplomatic goals, rather than any ideal of human rights. Clinton acknowledges that the Internet can be harnessed for good or for ill, so the US stands for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access […] A single Internet is an idea that runs contrary to the decentralized and open architecture of the Internet, the characteristic that made Internet open to all. It means an Internet where freedom is compliant with central rulemaking. We should be wary of efforts to centralize control of the Internet. The best way to advance Internet freedom is by fostering political change and human rights in closed societies, leveraging the Internet with its goods and ills, rather than by closing up the Internet itself….

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  25. Ethan:
    What you’re skirting around is the fact that it’s political change, not technology utilization per se, that is the goal. Political change requires dedicated, organized movements and collective action over the long term. The people engaged in such a political struggle must share certain values and maintain enough sollidarity to resist and overcome counter moves or oppression by the state. Knowing the proper strategy and tactics requires an understanding of institutions and history as well as an awareness of what technology can do. I am always amazed at the degree to which people at Berkman seem to conceive of Internet freedom in technological rather than political terms, but your blog represents a very nice movement forward in this regard.

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  27. Paul Koning says:

    I like the notion of using technology to get around censorship. And it’s clearly gotten people’s attention, witness an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that references this article and supports its conclusions.

    That article also talks about an analogy with Radio Liberty and its friends. Unfortunately, that’s a false analogy, and that points to the weakness of the circumvention movement.

    A circumvention proxy has to be known in order to be useful. If it is known to its users, it will presumably also be known to its enemies. So, if its enemies are at all awake, its IP address will only stay unblocked briefly. At least that’s going to be true if the effort is at all effective. So I fear that we might end up spending large amounts of effort building a circumcention infrastructure that its intended beneficiaries won’t be able to use because the censor’s firewalls will block the access.

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