The recent so-called "Twitter revolutions" in the Middle East have refocused attention on how social media’s benefits can translate offline, organizing otherwise disparate individuals into a digitally incubated sea of change.
Since the 2009 Iran elections, Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook and YouTube, have been credited with helping social media move beyond photo sharing or FarmVille to loftier ends like furthering democracy. But what happens when forums that bring people together or act as a conduit for news and information from other countries are blocked by a repressive government? Such instances are common in China, Iran, and more recently in Egypt and Libya, where Al Jazeera, Twitter, and Facebook users reported that these sites had been disrupted or blocked.
Solutions are coming from Silicon Valley: For Mountain View, Calif., based startup AnchorFree, such government censorship translates into big business.
AnchorFree offers users a free, downloadable application called HotSpot Shield that masks identities online. This allows users to circumvent censorship in a way that's akin to slipping on a disguise and hopping across the border.
HotSpot Shield creates what is called a virtual private network (VPN), assigning users dummy IP addresses. Cookies collect data based on which sites the user visits, making targeted advertising possible despite a lack of identity-based information. Unlike other VPNs, which either charge, or cap usage, HotSpot Shield funds itself through advertising, allowing for unlimited usage.
Major advertisers include Yahoo, AOL, and Gorilla Nation. The company claims to have a 90 percent market share, with 9 million monthly unique visitors. "We’re the quiet heroes behind the scenes," says AnchorFree founder David Gorodyansky (not so quietly), pointing out that most of Facebook’s 700,000 users in China access the website through his service.
AnchorFree's traffic from Egypt went from about 140,000 users before the uprisings to one million during. In Libya, traffic increased by 200 percent between February 14th and 15th--the day nationwide protests began. Traffic increased by over 450 percent for the month of February in Libya overall.
In March alone, over 1.6 million users in China used HotSpot Shield to circumvent government censorship. The company has been blocked in China since last year; however, users access HotSpotShield through other websites that host it or by emailing an address that auto responds with the file. Since China blocked Gmail, the number of users accessing the email service via HotSpotShield increased 24 percent, while those using it to access Google increased 13 percent.
And it's not just the natives getting in on anonymous browsing and posting. Usage of Hotspot Shield is also common among foreigners, says Alex Rico, a Spanish expat based in China who says he uses the application two or three times a day to access Facebook, YouTube, and blogs he follows. "People use their own software to bypass the 'golden great wall,' but these programs are slightly different than Hotspot because you don't have total freedom to surf the Internet."
AnchorFree initially began in 2005 as a way for U.S. users to browse the web securely while using Wi-Fi networks in public places like Starbucks. HotSpotShield encrypts every page a user visits, similar to what banks do, changing the http preceding a URL to https (the "s" indicates that the page is secure).
"We started AnchorFree to give people a free lock for their door on the Internet--from the bad guys, the good guys, and even ourselves," says Gorodyansky. "It was a David and Goliath kind of thing. We wanted the average person to be in control, rather than Google or Yelp or any large corporation."
However, after seeing a surge in global traffic, beginning 2008, Gorodyansky began customizing the site for international users. The company now gets 50 percent of its traffic from international users, many of whom live in regions that censor the Internet.
HotSpot Shield is now available in eight different languages, including Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Arabic, and the company has nine data centers around the world, in locations from New York and Chicago to Germany and Amsterdam.
Gorodyansky says AnchorFree is "a daily part of people’s lives" that many depend on to read the news or connect with family and friends. "After you get sleep, food, and water, the next most important thing is information. That’s what we're enabling," he says.
A Fine Line
Laudable though its goals may be, there are times when AnchorFree runs afoul of the rules. In 2009, video streaming site Hulu is reported to have blocked the site, as non-U.S. users were violating copyright law in using anonymous proxies to access the service.
Garrett Brown, a Chicago-based freelance web designer who has lived in the U.K. and Denmark, says that he uses HotSpot Shield to watch BBC programs otherwise not available in the U.S.
"I'm not sure if it's expressly illegal or just really dodgy," he says. "But people are going to snatch them and put them in torrents. This way at least they can make money from advertising."
Gorodyansky counters that while some users do use HotSpotShield to access sites like Hulu, Pandora, and the BBC that are blocked outside the U.S. or the U.K. for copyright reasons, many more users use the tool to circumvent government censorship in countries like Saudi Arabia and China.
He says sites like Facebook and Twitter "depend significantly" on virtual private networks like his to drive traffic in otherwise censored zones. "We are building this gateway between the U.S. and Europe and emerging markets. And sometimes there's no other way to get to those continents than to get through us."
A Billion-Strong Market
Rather than worry about what he sees as minor infringements, Gorodyansky is now focused on stepping up growth.
Configuring HotSpot Shield to be available on mobile is one major priority--the mobile tool is currently available only on the iPhone and the iPad.
AnchorFree has recently begun providing a free antivirus program, and is looking into creating partnerships that will allow it to provide content from sites like the BBC or The Wall Street Journal directly--current partners include PC World, Mac World and the National Journal.
Gorodyansky estimates a potential market of people who use security and would benefit from a VPN at one billion; an additional 600 million live in regions that censor content.
"Out of two billion people online today, one third live in regions that are censored," he says. "I'm very passionate and happy about being able to solve a very real problem for these users."
Unless you live somewhere that blocks it, follow @fastcompany on Twitter.
[Image by Flickr user Dan Patterson]