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[liberationtech] Online tools to skirt Internet censorship overwhelmed by demand - The Washington Post

Yosem Companys companys at stanford.edu
Mon Oct 22 08:19:12 PDT 2012


http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/online-tools-to-skirt-internet-censorship-overwhelmed-by-demand/2012/10/21/390457a2-082d-11e2-858a-5311df86ab04_print.html

Internet anti-censorship tools are being overwhelmed by demandBy James
Ball, Published: October 21

U.S.-funded programs to beat back online censorship are increasingly
finding a ready audience in repressive countries, with more than 1 million
people a day using online tools to get past extensive blocking programs and
government surveillance.

But the popularity of those initiatives has become a liability.

Activists and nonprofit groups say that their online circumvention tools,
funded by the U.S. government, are being overwhelmed by demand and that
there is not enough money to expand capacity. The result: online
bottlenecks that have made the tools slow and often inaccessible to users
in China, Iran and elsewhere, threatening to derail the Internet freedom
agenda championed by the Obama administration.

“Every time we provide them with additional funding, those bottlenecks are
alleviated for a time but again fill to capacity in a short period of
time,” said André Mendes, director of the Office of Technology, Services
and Innovation at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which funds
some of the initiatives. “One could reasonably state that more funding
would translate into more traffic and, therefore, more accessibility from
behind these firewalls.”

The United States spends about $30 million a year on Internet freedom, in
effect funding an asymmetric proxy war against governments that spend
billions to regulate the flow of information. The programs have been backed
by President Obama, who promoted the initiatives at a town-hall-style
meeting in Shanghai three years ago.

During his debate last week with Republican presidential candidate Mitt
Romney, Obama briefly raised the topic of government surveillance in China,
accusing the former Bain Capital chief executive of investing in firms that
provide surveillance technology to China’s government.

For his part, Romney has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for
what he calls its failure to stand up to the authoritarian governments in
China, Iran and other countries where Internet freedom is curtailed. The
two candidates meet Monday for the third and final debate, this one
focusing on foreign policy.

The U.S. government funds nonprofit groups and others to develop software
that can be downloaded by users in other countries with pervasive
censorship. The most widely used tools route Internet traffic through other
countries, allowing users to bypass Internet firewalls as well as
surveillance.

The task of keeping the Internet free, however, is becoming harder.

China’s “Great Firewall” has grown more sophisticated in recent years, with
the Communist government employing tens of thousands of
monitors<http://uncut.indexoncensorship.org/2012/08/china-internet-censorship/>
to
filter content and watch users. Iran, meanwhile, has stepped up its
already-substantial censorship efforts amid a mounting economic crisis,
instituting new bans on overseas audio and video content and advancing
plans for an Iran-only
intranet.<http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/iran-preparing-internal-version-of-internet/2012/09/19/79458194-01c3-11e2-b260-32f4a8db9b7e_story.html>

The online crackdown is spurring calls from Internet freedom advocates for
the Obama administration to step up its own efforts. Many have expressed
frustration with what they perceive as slow progress advancing these tools.

“I can’t imagine anything more cost-effective or strategic for the United
States to do,” said Michael Horowitz, former general counsel to the Office
of Management and Budget in Ronald Reagan’s administration and co-founder
of the Twenty First Century Initiative, a group aiming to increase funding
for Internet freedom.

“The one thing that’s perfectly clear is people in closed-society regimes
are the shrewdest people of all about being able to define their own
interests and stay in power,” he said. “And the Iranians and the Chinese
are telling us, as clearly as they can, that their stability in power
depends on purifying the Internet.”

Horowitz said he wants the BBG — an independent agency that, along with the
State Department, funds online circumvention tools — to increase its
spending on Internet freedom from its current level of about $10 million of
its $750 million annual budget, to between $50 million and $100 million.

Executives at the BBG said they are sympathetic to such appeals but suggest
they are politically infeasible.

The “argument is if you gave $100 million, you could really be David and
Goliath, could blow a big hole and knock the whole whack-a-mole of the
Chinese censors down, and all the rest of the bad guys,” said Michael P.
Meehan, a member of the BBG. “I wouldn’t disagree.”

But, he said, the agency is already under pressure from Congress to find
$50 million in budget cuts.

Meehan said his frustration is that countries such as China and Iran are
clearly willing to spend exponentially more than the United States in what
has become a cat-and-mouse chase.

“If we figure out how to breach the Chinese firewall with x dollars, they
can spend a hundred times x dollars and divert their resources to figuring
out how to plug that hole,” he said. “If they’re spending to shut one guy
down, they’ll create a vulnerability somewhere else in the wall for someone
else. That’s exactly how this battle’s going to work.”

The most widely used tool to avoid Internet censorship in China and beyond
is known as Ultrasurf, but those behind the project say it no longer has
the capacity to support demand.

On one day in September alone, for example, more than 770,000 people used
the tool to avoid censors — more than half from China or Vietnam, according
to data supplied by “Clint,” one of the people running the project, who
spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for the safety of
relatives in China.

Ultrasurf’s traffic spikes in different countries during times of political
turmoil and crisis, as more users struggle to get access to independent
information and news — but the tool also crashes when it gets overloaded.

As a result, Ultrasurf has already had to slow down Internet speeds to a
crawl, Clint said, and prevent access to video content. Those behind the
program have also developed a version for mobile phones — potentially
significant given that millions of people in countries with censorship have
phones but no computers — but they are unable to launch it because of
funding constraints.

Privately, officials say the funding issues are caught up in concerns over
politics and security.

Ultrasurf, for example, is backed by thousands of supporters of Falun Gong,
a spiritual movement that began in China, and restricts access to content
critical of the religious group, making it more difficult for officials to
press Congress for money.

Tor <https://www.torproject.org/>, a competing online program that also
permits users to avoid detection, has become a useful tool for drug
trafficking, child prostitution and other criminal activity. It’s a problem
that staff members at the Tor project acknowledge, but they say it is, in
effect, a cost of doing business for an anti-surveillance tool.

“Criminals are early adopters of technology. As soon as the police learn to
monitor one network, criminals find better ways to hide,” said Karen
Reilly, development director for the Tor project.

“We are being asked to make false choices between victims,” Reilly said.
“Because of someone who is being abused by a family member in the States,
we are asked to shut down anonymity software, leaving the child who posts
anti-regime comments on social media vulnerable in a country where rape in
prison is officially sanctioned punishment.”

Internet freedom activists say part of the challenge in developing online
circumvention tools is determining how much to spend now on helping users
evade detection vs. how much to spend on more sophisticated projects for
the future that could keep pace with censorship technology.

Much of the latter is done under the auspices of Radio Free
Asia<http://f2c.rfa.org/>,
in a program led by Dan Meredith, a 30-year-old former journalist and
programmer. But his program has only $3.7 million to spend in the year
ahead — down from $6.7 million last year.

Meredith said that the firewall in China is “actually thin as cheese paper”
— at least until censors find new ways to block information. What Meredith
wants to do is keep the Internet free for new users — by building “mesh”
networks, retooling major sites to automatically dodge crude censorship
efforts and more.

But he acknowledges the political sensitivities involved in the effort.

“How do I go about trying to increase more awareness and funding from
Congress for Internet freedom without going against some huge political
body, or something?” he said.

For Horowitz, the veteran of the Reagan administration, the issue boils
down to ideology. Internet freedom, in his view, is the 21st century’s Cold
War.

“We live in a world where walls of electrons are increasingly replacing
stone and barbed wire as control mechanisms of dictatorships,” he said.

**

© The Washington Post Company
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