Web Anonymizers And The Arab Spring

A short discussion with the man behind Hotspot Shield about web anonymizers, the Arab Spring, and why expats in Dubai aren't happy with firewalls.

Twitter revolution

Fast Company recently had the opportunity to speak with David Gorodyansky, CEO of AnchorFree, on the use of his company's popular Hotspot Shield software during the Arab Spring. Although Hotspot Shield is best known as a product used to access services such as Hulu and the BBC iPlayer across national borders, it also played a crucial role in organizing uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Users put a series of web anonymizers to work to access Facebook, Twitter, and other services during uprisings throughout the Middle East.

Can you give a short history of AnchorFree?

“We started AnchorFree in late 2005. The idea was to enable free products that millions could use to be secure and private online. We wanted to create a system which is totally private, totally secure, and where the user is in control. As you surf the web, obviously, every site tracks your behavior. Our early users were primarily in North America and Western Europe.

But in 2008, we noticed an interesting trend. People were getting online and using our products in emergent markets. At first, we were wondering what was going on since that wasn't the original intent of our product. But people in emerging markets found another use for Hotspot Shield: Besides being secure and private, it could also bypass any censorship or any blockages in this region. We found out that out of 2 billion Internet users worldwide, more than 600 million live in places that censor the web—primarily in China and the Middle East. That's a serious number. We look at our market as containing 1.5 billion potential users—600 million that are censored and another 800 or 900 million who live in the western world but need private browsing.

Today we have around 9 million unique monthly users who...visit about 2 billion pages per month through AnchorFree Hotspot Shield. We encrypt and secure every page they visit. Users' IP addresses, which are linked to their identity, are thrown out by the service and AnchorFree creates a new address. Even we don't know the user's identity—which protects them from the good guys, the bad guys, and ourselves.

So how then is the advertising on Hotspot Shield targeted?

Advertising is targeted through a series of patents. To summarize the secret sauce, the user's identity remains secret but if they are looking at pages for cars or for furniture, then they could be targeted with car ads or furniture ads. Google can target ads with cars or furniture (to the secret user) and so could anyone else. Basically, we anonymize the user's identity but we do not prevent any tracking based on cookies or so on. If a user is really interested in stopping this, they can also turn on private browsing in Firefox or another browser so no one can ever see the searches that they are doing. That's up to the user, but we do make their identity private. Even if someone asked us, we don't know who the user is. But pages can be broken down into categories, and we can target ads according to which of the 2 billion pages users are looking at—we just don't know who the user is.

Can you tell us about how your product is used in regions with web censorship?

During the uprisings in the Middle East—and even before that, during the Iranian elections—when Facebook and Twitter were getting all this press for helping people to organize, a lot of people got onto those two services through us. In China, users are able to access any kinds of pages they want through us. We also put 5 million users a month onto Google and 2-3 million a month onto both Facebook and YouTube in regions where those services are censored in places like Turkey and China.

We are also a huge enabler for Skype. The monopolies that control the mobile phone companies in many regions don't like Skype and restrict access to the service in many parts of the world. But for us, we see ourselves becoming a social business that helps people and helps the world. We're fascinated and encouraged by the fact that we are running a consistently profitable business that grows 200% a year in page growth and revenue, but that also makes a very real social impact. We allow users to access information that they normally would not be able to.

Where besides the United States do you have the biggest number of users?

We have users in 100 countries. We have around 1.5 million users in China, many in Western Europe. The Middle East is huge, especially places like Dubai. So far, it's not so much places like Iran (that give mass numbers of users). But Egypt saw a huge jump from 100,000 users to a million overnight during the uprisings. Looking at our traffic, we can see when news is happening around the world. We know when people are sleeping, praying, and eating in the Middle East due to traffic patterns.

So there's a lot of traffic from Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, right?

There is. I think one of the reasons for that is the expat community there. We have another product called ExpatShield that is specifically geared towards expats (who cannot see firewalled sites in the Emirates). But in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, our traffic jumped.

We could also see things no one else was reporting. In Libya, we could tell that the Internet would come up in the morning and completely shut down at night. We didn't see that in the press; to the best of my knowledge, no one reported that anyway. We have usage in 100 countries, but nowhere does traffic drop to zero at night—but in Libya, that is exactly what happened. My guess is that they would turn on the Internet in the morning so oil companies would function, but they would shut it off at night so people couldn't organize after work. But that's my guess.

Were there any problems dealing with additional traffic from the Arab Spring?

We didn't have problems dealing with the traffic. We're very well-funded, profitable and scale extremely well. Our infrastructure is distributed in nine data centers around the world and we have a whole team of engineers devoted to scaling infrastructure according to scale. As a result, we didn't cap bandwidth.

Are there any markets you had difficulty working in?

Yes, some places try to block our services. It's interesting—our website was blocked in China, but since then, usage quadrupled. What we found was users emailed the product to each other, so we set up an email autoresponder that would send a message with the product attatched. Hotspot Shield was spreading almost virally, but the censorship was still a pain in the ass, of course.

We had one attack on our servers around two or three years ago, but since then nothing. We go through 2 billion pages a month, which requires huge amounts of servers. In terms of scale, we deal with almost as much bandwidth as eBay. Taking that down would be very hard.

Any plans for the future?

Our plans are to continue growing organically; our goal is to go from 9 million unique monthly users to 100 million. We hope to get there by 2014—that's our real vision. We are also now selling an ad-free paid project in conjunction with Webroot as well.

Note: This interview was edited for length and readability.

[Image: Flickr user AhmadHammoud]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

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