When a national government decides to block access to an entire category of online content, naturally people who wanted to see that content—whatever it is—will try to find workarounds. Today’s paper is a case study of just such behavior. The authors were given access to a collection of bulk packet logs taken by an ISP in Pakistan. The ISP had captured a day’s worth of traffic on six days ranging from October 2011 through August 2013, a period that included two significant changes to the national censorship policy. In late 2011, blocking access to pornography became a legal mandate (implemented as a blacklist of several thousand sites, maintained by the government and disseminated to ISPs in confidence—the authors were not allowed to see this blacklist). In mid-2012, access to Youtube was also blocked, in retaliation for hosting anti-Islamic videos . The paper analyzes the traffic in aggregate to understand broad trends in user behavior and how these changed in response to the censorship.
The Youtube block triggered an immediate and obvious increase in encrypted traffic, which the authors attribute to an increased use of circumvention tools—the packet traces did not record enough information to identify exactly what tool, or to discriminate circumvention from other encrypted traffic, but it seems a reasonable assumption. Over the next several months, alternative video sharing/streaming services rose in popularity; as of the last trace in the study, they had taken over roughly 80% of the market share formerly held by Youtube.
Users responded quite differently to the porn block: roughly half of the inbound traffic formerly attributable to porn just disappeared, but the other half was redirected to different porn sites that didn’t happen to be on the official blacklist. The censorship authority did not react by adding the newly popular sites to the blacklist. Perhaps a 50% reduction in overall consumption of porn was good enough for the politicians who wanted the blacklist in the first place.
The paper also contains also some discussion of the mechanism used to block access to censored domains. This confirms prior literature  so I’m not going to go into it in great detail; we’ll get to those papers eventually. One interesting tidbit (also previously reported) is that Pakistan has two independent filters, one implemented by local ISPs which falsifies DNS responses, and another operating in the national backbone which forges TCP RSTs and/or HTTP redirections.
The authors don’t talk much about why user response to the Youtube block was so different from the response to the porn block, but it’s evident from their discussion of what people do right after they hit a block in each case. This is very often a search engine query (unencrypted, so visible in the packet trace). For Youtube, people either search for proxy/circumvention services, or they enter keywords for the specific video they wanted to watch, hoping to find it elsewhere, or at least a transcript. For porn, people enter keywords corresponding to a general type of material (sex act, race and gender of performers, that sort of thing), which suggests that they don’t care about finding a specific video, and will be content with whatever they find on a site that isn’t blocked. This is consistent with analysis of viewing patterns on a broad-spectrum porn
hub site . It’s also consistent with the way Youtube is integrated into online discourse—people very often link to or even
embed a specific video on their own website, in order to talk about it; if you can’t watch that video you can’t participate in the conversation. I think this is really the key finding of the paper, since it gets at when people will go to the trouble of using a circumvention tool.
What the authors do talk about is the consequences of these blocks on the local Internet economy. In particular, Youtube had donated a caching server to the ISP in the case study, so that popular videos would be available locally rather than clogging up international data channels. With the block and the move to proxied, encrypted traffic, the cache became useless and the ISP had to invest in more upstream bandwidth. On the other hand, some of the video services that came to substitute for Youtube were Pakistani businesses, so that was a net win for the local economy. This probably wasn’t intended by the Pakistani government, but in similar developments in China  and Russia , import substitution is clearly one of the motivating factors. From the international-relations perspective, that’s also highly relevant: censorship only for ideology’s sake probably won’t motivate a bureaucracy as much as censorship that’s seen to be in the economic interest of the country.