We were specifically interested in trying to compare usage of different types of tools – sophisticated blocking-resistant tools like Tor and Ultrasurf, ad-supported web proxies like Proxeasy or HideMyAss, and VPN-based systems like Hotspot Shield and Relakks. Unlike in our previous study of some of these tools, we weren’t trying to compare the functionality of these very different tools, or evaluate their performance – we just wanted to answer the question, “How many people use this tool?”
More broadly, and like Ethan, I’m interested in this question: “How many people are using circumvention technology at all?” The answer we came up with, which you can certainly argue with, is about 3% of all Internet users.
Three percent of all Internet users. Not very many. What we don’t have the answer to is “why?” – Why so few users? Is it that the vast majority are unaware of circumvention tools, or is it that they simply don’t matter that much to the majority of users? We hear so much about Internet filtering, but could it be that the vast majority of users can find what they need without circumventing it?
As Ethan points out, that may be the case. There are definitely people who require unfettered access (something that the Cuban government recognizes, incidentally), such as academics and activists, but how important is it for the average person to get to Facebook?
I’ve got another hypothesis that I’m hoping our upcoming survey of attitudes and perceptions toward Internet filtering and circumvention tech will help confirm: Most circumvention tools simply don’t work the way users wish they would. I remember being in Morocco in 2005, at the beginning of my blogging career. I was still using LiveJournal, and was surprised at my first login attempt to learn that it was blocked in the country (it still is). So I googled “proxy” and picked the first one off the list. I could get to LiveJournal.com just fine, but any attempts to login simply failed. Most free proxies, at the time anyway, aren’t set up to keep users logged in to dynamic sites.
There are a host of other options of course, but short of paying for a VPN (something out of reach financially for many of the world’s netizens), they all have their flaws. Tor’s too slow, some tools block videos because they take up too much bandwidth, still others block certain categories of site.
Of course, this doesn’t account for the vast majority of non-usage, but it’s yet another thing to think about.
I’m excited about this research – with all of the frenzy over filtering and circumvention, it’s all too easy to forget the human side of things. And this is very much a human issue. We’re talking not about tools and sites but about people and what they want or need to access online.