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Paper: Oppressive and Free Countries Use Tor The Most

Who uses Tor? The answer to this question may seem obvious but Eric Jardine, in a paper published in New Media & Society, pointed out “Activists often state that such tools are used by political dissidents who stand up to repressive regimes, but these claims lack abroad, cross-national empirical basis. Without a solid empirical foundation, it is unclear if anonymity networks are used consistently by political dissidents in highly repressive contexts.”

Jardine continued, “Data on use of the Tor network from 2011 to 2013 suggest that political repression does drive usage of anonymity-granting technologies. The results indicate that both very high and very low levels of political repression tend to drive use of Tor the most. In other words, the relationship between a country’s level of repression and the rate of individual usage of anonymity-granting technologies is U-shaped.”

Motherboard reports that Jardine told them in a phone call that “There is evidence to suggest that at extreme levels of repression, Tor does provide a useful tool to people in those circumstances to do things that they otherwise would not be able to do”.

Determination of a country’s level of repression was done by examining data sourced from Freedom House. Along with metric data about Tor, data about a country’s openness, education, log GDP, intellectual property regime, and internet penetration was used in this paper. In total, 157 countries were analyzed.

Upon analysis of Tor bridge data, Jardine found a clear correlation between repressive countries and the amount of Tor bridge users.

“As predicted, the relationship is U-shaped, confirming one empirical expectation of the opportunity and political need framework suggested above. Political repression and Tor bridge use have the strongest and most consistent association. The relationship between a regime’s political context and both the use of Tor relays and the summed measure for all Tor use is still statistically significant and U-shape in nearly every model specification.”

Jardine also found heavy Tor usage from countries that aren’t very repressed which may seem puzzling to those not acquainted with Tor. He explained that Tor is “dual-use” – Tor can be used for things other than bypassing censorship.

He placed Tor users into two categories: opportunity-based users and political need-based users. With opportunity-based users being associated with free and unrepressed countries and political need-based users associated with repressive countries.

“Opportunity is the chance that people have to use anonymity-granting technologies free from state sanction.”

“Political need indicates the benefits that anonymity-granting technologies convey onto an individual.”

Jardine hypothesized that both types of users would use Tor the most because those in repressive countries have an incentive and the means to use it a la Tor bridges. In free countries, users won’t be persecuted and so they have the opportunity to use it.

In his conclusion, Jardine wrote, “The results suggest that the technology of Tor is useful for political dissidents and those trying to exercise their basic political rights. They also suggest that the underlying rationale for use likely varies between countries. In relative terms, the results suggest that the Tor network is probably more prone to abuse in liberal countries where opportunity is the underlying driver of use than in repressive regimes where people might only turn to the network because they need to do so. …”

4 comments

  1. Why would anyone who lives in a place where Tor isn’t illegal use a bridge?? You’re taking up bandwidth for people who actually need it!!!!

    • blacklight

      well some people use tor just to browse it anonymously, but tor gets blocked on certain networks, for example, my school back in the day used to block tor of the network, but with bridges, you could still use it.

  2. ooo yeah, Tor is connected with so-called arab spring i.e. with the CIA revolutions. therefore it is created but it can be used by the people in europe and america and therefore, even it is not illegal, Tor users are spied in Europe/America. Europe will not forbid websites and tor, but they will spy people visiting certain websites and using tor.
    the only difference in the level of repression is just that: china will block some website instead to spy billion Chinese visiting that website, Denmark will not block website but they will spy everyone visiting that website (marked as “dangerous”). I suppose it is so because the whole DK is just 6 million people while China has 1.4 billion people, therefore China will block it and then they don’t need to spy so many people, while DK will not block it but they will spy.

  3. There are people who feel politically repressed (especially by surveillance) in supposedly less repressive countries. There are also large black markets in very repressive countries. Many western countries operate web blocking too, Australia has a great firewall, the UK has a blocked sites list implemented by ISPs.

    In any case, Freedom House’s rankings are dubious, because they include things like “rule of law” and government efficacy in their definition of “freedom”. The whole thing’s rigged so western countries always perform well, however repressive they’re being at any given time. Given this definition, “free” countries are bound to have higher Internet use and knowledge, and hence more Tor use.

    I think the U-curve effect also reflects the availability of offline alternatives. “Unfree” countries tend to be either dirt-poor or extremely regulated or both. “Free” countries tend to be developed, very regulated and with relatively effective repression, which encourages online dissent. “Partly free” countries (such as Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, Colombia, about half of Africa) have authoritarian but inefficient regimes which are unable to control either black markets or political dissent. Neither Mexican social movements nor Mexican drug gangs have much need to use Tor since they control physical territory and operate more-or-less openly on the clearnet.

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