Harvard 2007 Circumvention Landscape Report

Almost everyone today deals with the frustration of ‘blocked’ internet sites. From corporate firewalls all the way up to The Great Firewall of China, the Powers-that-want-to-be continue to take it upon themselves to judge the internets on the behalf of other people and censor the word of the masses.

I am a staunch advocate of free, universal and unbiased access to information and knowledge . People should be allowed to absorb all that their reality can throw at them and use their own mental faculties (limited as they too often are) to come to conclusions, make informed decisions, and generally live smarter lives. Moreover, any form of internet censorship is far too heavily reliant on some form of subjective judgment of the ‘worthiness’ of a website to be accessed, makes certain excessively rude assumptions on the moral and intellectual fibre of the audience and with respect to knowledge, attempts to play god. Organizations that I’ve interacted with on this topic have little to no justification for blocking any site. Almost everything is blocked under the catch-all Holy Trinity of justifications – a)distraction to employees b)source of malicious software (viruses, malware, etc) and c) bandwidth hog. Considering the expectations placed on corporates to be accessible and ready-to-work 24/7 with the advent of the blackberry and other remote-working technologies, the argument that time at work should be exclusively used for work just is not worth a response. National level censoring, well, thats just malarkey.

I need to add a caveat here to my rant, while I do not support any form of internet-browsing censorship, I do agree, at the organizational level, with some amount of prevention of the use of P2P software. The lack of intelligence and awareness displayed by most P2P users make the softwares a risk to an organization’s data assets. Coupled with the complete (current) lack of use of P2P for corporate work, blocking P2P has few cons, imho.

My rant was rather inspired by the 2007 Circumvention Landscape Report. 2 years in the making, the report profiles all the major circumvention systems and implementing tools currently available.

As the Internet has exploded over the past fifteen years, recently reaching over a billion users, dozens of national governments from China to Saudi Arabia have tried to control the network by filtering out content objectionable to the countries for any of a number of reasons. A large variety of different projects have developed tools that can be used to circumvent this filtering, allowing people in filtered countries access to otherwise filtered content. In this report, we describe the mechanisms of filtering and circumvention and evaluate ten projects that develop tools that can be used to circumvent filtering: Anonymizer, Ultrareach, DynaWeb Freegate, Circumventor/CGIProxy, Psiphon, Tor, JAP, Coral, and Hamachi. We evaluated these tools in 2007 — using both tests from within filtered countries and tests within a lab environment — for their utility, usability, security, promotion, sustainability, and openness. We find that all of the tools use the same basic mechanisms of proxying and encryption but that they differ in their models of hosting proxies. Some tools use proxies that are centrally hosted, others use proxies that are peer hosted, and others use re-routing methods that use a combination of the two. We find that, in general, the tools work in the sense that they allow users to access pages that are otherwise blocked by filtering countries but that performance of the tools is generally poor and that many tools have significant, unreported security vulnerabilities.

The report was completed in 2007 and released to a group of private sponsors. Many of the findings of the report are now out of date, but we present them now, as is, because we think that the broad conclusions of the report about these tools remain valid and because we hope that other researchers will benefit from access to the methods used to test the tools.

Responses from developers of the tools in question are included in the report.

The report itself (almost 100 pages) makes some excellent points on the social factors in internet censorship. This is a good post on the same than I could write.

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