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Program Update

Collateral Freedom: A Snapshot of Chinese Users Circumventing Censorship

Collateral Freedom: A Snapshot of Chinese Users Circumventing Censorship, just released in May 2013, documents the experiences of 1,175 Chinese Internet users who are circumventing their country’s Internet censorship— and it carries a powerful message for developers and funders of censorship circumvention tools. We believe these results show an opportunity for the circumvention tech community to build stable, long term improvements in Internet freedom in China.

This study was conducted by David Robinson, Harlan Yu and Anne An. It was managed by OpenITP, and supported by Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund.

Download Report [pdf]

The report found that the circumvention tools that work best for Chinese users are technologically diverse, but are united by a shared political feature: the collateral cost of choosing to block them is prohibitive for China’s censors. Survey respondents rely not on tools that the Great Firewall can’t block, but rather on tools that the Chinese government does not want the Firewall to block. Internet freedom for these users is collateral freedom, built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable

The most widely used tool in the survey—GoAgent—runs on Google’s cloud hosting platform, which also hosts major consumer online services and provides background infrastructure for thousands of other web sites. The Great Firewall sometimes slows access to this platform, but purposely stops short of blocking the platform outright. The platform is engineered in a way that limits the regime’s ability to differentiate between the circumventing activity it would like to prohibit, and the commercial activity it would like to allow. A blanket block would be technically feasible, but economically disruptive, for the Chinese authorities. The next most widely used circumvention solutions are VPNs, both free and paid—networks using the same protocols that nearly all the Chinese offices of multinational firms rely on to connect securely to their international headquarters. Again, blocking all traffic from secure VPNs would be the logical way to make censorship effective—but it would cause significant collateral harm.

Download Report [pdf]

Instead, the authorities steer a middle course, sometimes choosing to disrupt VPN traffic (and commerce) in the interest of censorship, and at other times allowing VPN traffic (and circumvention) in the interest of commerce. The Chinese government is implementing policies that will improve its ability to segment circumvention-related uses of VPNs from business-related uses, including heightened registration requirements for VPN providers and users.

Respondents to the survey were categorically more likely to rely on these commercially widespread technologies and platforms than they were to use special purpose anti-censorship systems with relatively little commercial footprint, such as Freegate, Ultrasurf, Psiphon, Tor, Puff or simple web proxies. Many of the respondents have used these non-commercial tools in the past—but most have now stopped. The most successful tools today don’t make the free flow of sensitive information harder to block—they make it harder to separate from traffic that the Chinese government wishes to allow.

The report found that most users of circumvention software are in what we call the “versatility-first” group: they seek a fast and robust connection, are willing to install and configure special software, and (perhaps surprisingly) do not base their circumvention decisions on security or privacy concerns. To the extent that circumvention software developers and funders wish to help these users, the study found that they should focus on leveraging business infrastructure hosted in relatively freedom respecting jurisdictions, because the Chinese government has greater reason to allow such infrastructure to operate.

The report provided five practical suggestions:

  • Map the circumvention technologies and practices of foreign businesses in China.
  • Engage with online platform providers who serve businesses in censored countries.
  • Investigate the collateral freedom dynamic in other countries.
  • Diversify development efforts to match the diversity of user needs.
  • Make HTTPS a corporate social responsibility issue.

Download Report [pdf]

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