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Freedom House: Circumvention Tools Effective, but No Silver Bullet for Remaining Safe Online

Source: Freedom House, Washington

A new Freedom House report released today found that while the majority of circumvention tools used to evade government censorship online perform similarly well, the country in which they are used and the nature of the censorship dictate their effectiveness. No one tool provides a silver bullet for security as governments become more sophisticated in filtering content and monitoring user activity. Leaping Over the Firewall: A Review of Censorship Circumvention Tools utilized user survey data and technical testing to evaluate various available circumvention tools for both functionality and ease of use.

read the full report

The report, which is based on feedback from users in China, Iran, Burma, and Azerbaijan, studies 11 circumvention tools, and examines their usability, effectiveness and security.  Additionally, it evaluates other solutions to bypass censorship such as Google applications, RSS feeds, VPN tunnels and proxy servers. The report will allow citizens living in regimes that engage in censorship to compare circumvention tools, and decide which one work best for them.

"As repressive governments become increasingly savvy in their ability to filter and censor online content, these tools, which allow users to exercise their fundamental rights to free expression and privacy online, have become essential," said Robert Guerra, project director for Freedom House's Internet Freedom program. "But the risks are very real and on their own, these tools cannot always provide sufficient security to prevent users from landing on the radar screen of repressive regimes. In order to stay safe online, these tools should be just one of a number of steps taken by users."

Findings from the study show that while circumvention tools are quite effective, not all of them are the best solution for all countries. Some circumvention tools help to access banned sites, but don't give the user sufficient security features.  The study also shows that while technical testing did not reflect huge differences in functionality, users were forced to make trade-offs for speed versus security.  Notably, a large number of those surveyed opted for speed.

Other key findings:

Chinahas a well-developed internet infrastructure and comprehensive filtering continues to be present. A peer-to-peer anonymizing network was the preferred tool here. Despite a complex, highly resourced blocking system, the results indicate that Chinese users are quite skilled in accessing blocked sites.

The favorite choice in Iran is a generic tool (VPN) that circumvents the very stringent blocking system, since most internet access takes place from home computers. 

Burmahas a high incidence of blocked content, and strictly limits free speech, which explains the almost equal appreciation for ease of use, performance, and security. The highest ranking tool (a web-based proxy system) for Burma does not provide a high level of security, however, probably due to the high use of internet cafes. Installing circumvention tools is rarely easy in such locations.

Azerbaijandisplayed a relatively low incidence of blocked content. Google was the leading tool from the survey, and is an understandable choice given reportedly slow internet access speeds and preference for usability. The internet community in Azerbaijan appears to rely on internet cafes to provide the required anonymity.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.  

... Payvand News - 04/13/11 ... --

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