dissidents around the world for over a decade.
Our travels have taken us to North Korea, Saudi Arabia and other countries grappling with repression. Yet when we meet dissidents and members of harassed minorities, we are surprised by how few of them use systems like Tor.
Trust is perhaps the most fundamental issue. In Iran, online bazaars sell services that promise secure access. Yet rumours swirl that these services are covertly provided by the Iranian government, and can be monitored or terminated at any time.
Scalability is another problem. One popular approach, virtual private networks, allow users in a repressively censored place like Syria to “proxy” the connections through a computer in a more open place like Norway. But when thousands of users connect to a single intermediary, the repressive government notices, and shuts them down.
The final challenge is usability. Engineers can build sophisticated algorithms, but they’re useful only if a member of, say, the Kurdish minority in Iran can figure out how to install them on her low-bandwidth phone.
None of these challenges are new. What is new is the possibility to overcome them—if we make the right public and private investments. For example, software using peer-to-peer algorithms lets users route an internet connection through another computer without having to go through a VPN, helping to address the trust and scalability issues.
These algorithms don’t resolve the trust issue completely. How do you know you’re actually connecting to your friend, not a government agent? Ten years ago, this challenge would have been a deal breaker for many people. But today it’s possible to use networks like Facebook or Google Hangouts to verify one another’s identities similarly to how we do offline.
Obfuscation techniques—when one thing is made to look like another—are also a path forward. A digital tunnel from Iran to Norway can be disguised as an ordinary Skype call. Deep packet inspection cannot distinguish such traffic from genuine traffic, and the collateral damage of blocking all traffic is often too high for a government to stomach.
Finally, advances in user-experience design practices are a big, if not obvious, boon. The internet is becoming easier to use, and the same goes for circumvention technologies—which means that activists will face less of a challenge getting online securely.
Much of the fight against censorship has been led by the activists of the internet freedom movement. We can join this open source community, whether we are policy makers, corporations or