Every time a government attempts to censor the Internet and block access to websites, advocates of Web freedom ritually respond that the effort is useless: Technology will beat police action every time. It's true -- but only to the extent that people are interested in resisting. Most aren't, which is why governments have not stopped messing with site blockages and other Web restrictions.
A few days ago, Iraq blocked the social networks, as beleaguered governments sometimes do, believing it would cut off activists from each other and stop them from organizing. Immediately, traffic to Tor, the anonymous network supported by volunteers throughout the world, rocketed:
Though the graph's steep trajectory seems to endorse the idea that you can't shut off access to specific sites unless you cut off Internet access altogether, or use heavy filtering as they do in China, the reality is less encouraging. The actual number of Tor users in Iraq has only gone up to about 11,000 from fewer than 2,000. Meanwhile, about 2.2 million Iraqis were on the Internet in 2012, the last year for which data are available.
Tor is the world's biggest, best-known and most foolproof anonymizing tool, but it's not the only way to bypass censorship. Users will, for example, also use anonymous and secure messaging apps such as Firechat (which has recently seen a flurry of downloads) and Telegram (which is big in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's toughest Internet censors). But the paltry numbers for Tor are indicative of how successful censorship can be. In Iraq, Tor is attracting less than 1 percent of all Internet users.
Russia, too, has been leaning toward greater censorship of the Web, mainly because of the Ukraine crisis and Russian President Vladimir Putin's increasing international isolation. The government has been pushing for popular bloggers to register their Web pages and blocked access to opposition sites. As a result, Russians have taken to Tor, producing another robust graph:
It shows eightfold growth, to about 200,000 users. But that's out of a population of 84.4 million -- an even smaller population share than in Iraq (though Russian censorship measures are not yet as severe).
It's easy to mock the Iraqi government, which has blocked the Tor website as if access to it is necessary to use the network. It wasn't such a silly move, though. The Tor browser can be downloaded from the site, and if it's blocked, most people will just give up instead of asking friends to e-mail them the necessary software bundle.
In his recent book, "No Place to Hide," Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first published National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden's revelations, recalls having been approached by a potential source calling himself Cincinnatus. He offered Greenwald sensitive documents if the journalist set himself up with encrypted communication software. Greenwald procrastinated for months. Later, days after he met Snowden in Hong Kong, he emailed "Cincinnatus" to tell him he finally had obtained the requisite programs, only to discover that Snowden was the mysterious source. Greenwald was lucky the former NSA contractor stuck with him for so long: He could easily have lost his scoop.
People are lazy about cybersecurity, as well as about trying to break through barriers on the Internet.
After Iran cracked down on Tor in February, 2013, the number of Tor users dropped sharply, though there were still ways to access the anonymous network:
Now, only 40,000 hardcore users -- out of 22 million Iranian netizens -- regularly get on Tor. In China, where the government's efforts to seal gaps in the Great Firewall are more systematic, only about 2,500 people succeed in cracking the defenses.
In every repressive country, a tiny cadre of persistent activists may represent a threat to the government. But it is far less dangerous than a discontented mass of the kind recently fostered by social networks in Egypt or Ukraine. So even though government actions to restrict the Internet appear ham-fisted, they are also probably effective. Few people choose to fight back.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com
To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org