Proxy blocks: Equity and growth

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This post is the third part of a three-part series on proxy blocks, covering equity and growth effects. (first part, second part)

Open proxies – shared IP addresses accessible anywhere through free or paid services – have been blocked on Wikimedia projects for over 16 years, due to their usage in bypassing anti-abuse mechanisms. 

Throughout this time, the increasing prevalence of peer-to-peer proxy networks – where users funnel traffic through other users’ residential internet connections – have created problems in differentiating proxy users from non-proxy users. Blocks of these peer-to-peer IP addresses collaterally affect innocent, residential users connecting through these IP addresses.

Rising concerns

In April 2022, the Meta-Wiki page “Talk:No open proxies/Unfair blocking” was created, outlining concerns with proxy blocks and starting a discussion on the equity effects of blocking peer-to-peer proxies.

Many contributors to the discussion are from Africa, where CGNAT internet configurations, and thus peer-to-peer proxy blocks, are very common. This especially affects Ghana and Nigeria, where a significant majority of ISPs use CGNAT, and few IP addresses are left unblocked. 

Contributors to the page described their experience: the pervasiveness of these blocks affecting members of their communities, confusing processes to request IP block exemption, difficulties running edit-a-thons and recruiting new editors, and overall growing concerns with the additional barriers this has imposed on editing the encyclopedia “anyone can edit”.

Minimal data is available either on abuse from peer-to-peer connections, or the collateral effects of peer-to-peer and specifically CGNAT blocks, and it’s thus very difficult to quantify the net result of these actions. Additionally, policy makes no distinction between peer-to-peer proxies and open proxies; in 2004 this was not even a consideration, as proxies were relatively easily identifiable, whereas today entire countries’ residential IPs are blocked from a probably very small minority of its population using peer-to-peer proxy services.

In the age where any IP address can be a proxy, and more and more people are collaterally prevented from editing by these blocks…when will the costs become too great, if they haven’t already?

Editor recruitment and technical constraints

The limitations to editing, from the outset, likely dissuade many potential editors from making their first contribution. For those whose interest remains, they are then directed, in the case of a global block, to the Wikimedia Stewards.

The email queue managed by these volunteers has a significant backlog, and the time until response is uncertain; there are only 38 stewards. When the blocked user gets a response, they’ll be asked for their IP address, and which projects they intend to edit. From there, a steward can determine what next steps are required, which ranges from the steward simply making an account for them and granting global IP block exemption, to the user needing to make three separate requests themselves: an account through a local process, local IP block exemption, and finally global IPBE.

The process is complicated and largely opaque to new users, not to mention generally confusing for people accustomed to the more user-friendly parts of the internet.

This experience for new editors is multiplied in its negative effects during edit-a-thons, where potential new contributors, who made an effort to attend an in-person event, can have their first introduction to the Wikimedia community interrupted by these blocks. As it’s unlikely to have a Steward or local administrator on call, account creations and IP block exemptions can take days to be set up. Without significant preparation and coordination, these edit-a-thons can’t happen.

Independent of whether the process eventually resolves itself in the end, which it doesn’t always, every additional hoop to jump through makes new users’ first editing experience more difficult and frustrating than it should be.

From the perspective of experienced editors, they too experience difficulties. New proxy blocks can cause confusion, as the reasoning behind the block is not always clear from the block message, and few people are familiar with peer-to-peer proxies. Some users assume the block is directed at them personally. There’s also often difficulty in identifying the specific processes to request block exemptions, especially as the block summaries and Meta-Wiki documentation are available in relatively few languages. Even if they find the right processes, the users who they need to talk to may not know their language, and the response time can be significantly delayed.

The combined difficulties for editors affected by peer-to-peer proxy CGNAT blocks significantly reduce the effectiveness of editor recruitment and outreach, and causes frustration for experienced editors.

The wider proxy blocks problem

Movement and Wikimedia Foundation values emphasize the importance of minimal barriers to contributing to the sum of all human knowledge.

And yet, for many editors these barriers have increased dramatically: whether it be editors in Ghana affected by peer-to-peer CGNAT blocks, editors in China who need to request a series of exemptions to contribute through a proxy, or editors in the United States who use T-Mobile, proxy-type blocks have a marked impact on the experience of contributors in editing Wikimedia projects.

Independent of what is decided with proxy blocks, the identification problem remains: proxies are trending towards becoming ubiquitous with basic internet privacy, CGNAT IP addresses are often blocked for reasons other than peer-to-peer usage (such as vandalism), and ISPs have been trending towards more dynamic IP assigning. The usefulness of IPs themselves as individual identifiers is in question.

In the near term, however, there is a lot of work to be done to create a more equitable, responsive, and user-friendly structure to address proxy blocks’ more immediate effects.

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