New Tool Aims to Bypass Net Censorship

WASHINGTON ~ A new tool aimed at circumventing internet filters used by repressive regimes has been released, offering hopes for freer access to information for activists, journalists and others.

The “psiphon” software, developed at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, offers more potential for bypassing government censors than most other tools because it allows simple access and leaves no traces on the computers of people who use it, developers say.

Psiphon, released through the Open Net Initiative, a project of four universities in the United States, Canada and Britain, “operates on private social networks of trust,” said Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab.

Deibert said psiphon functioned like a “virtual private network” used by many companies and organizations to securely transmit data, but without the cumbersome installation.

“We’ve designed it to be very easy to use,” Deibert said, noting that other software aimed at maintaining anonymity on the internet could be complex to use.

“The user doesn’t have to install anything. They connect to the software with a unique username and password and website address.”

Because the system relied on a connection through a proxy computer outside the country, “there is nothing authorities can block,” Deibert said.

Even if the authorities located someone using the bypass tool, they would only be able to shut down a single “node” or contact and that would not affect others.

And because the data was encrypted over the connection, he said authorities could only see there was a connection to another computer. To read the data, censors “would have to have sophisticated code-cracking technologies at their disposal, and it would take a long time.”

The psiphon software itself is downloaded to a computer outside the repressive country, making it an access point. As a result, its benefits may be limited to people who have contacts outside their country.

Deibert said small networks using this would likely include expatriate communities of Chinese, Iranians or others in the West. But it could also include journalists traveling to certain countries or people involved in non-governmental activist organizations.

Julien Pain of the human rights group Reporters Without Borders said psiphon was “a very good tool” for those seeking to bypass censorship in hardline regimes.

But Pain said psiphon might be limited to wealthier people who have family or friends outside the country.

“The everyday internet user in China probably won’t know anyone in the West,” he said.

“It’s very innovative but no software can solve the censorship problem.”

Activists say internet blocking has spread from a handful of countries like China and Iran to as many as 40 governments, including in Africa.

“Online censorship is spreading,” Pain said.

Deibert said he expected thousands of people to begin using psiphon in countries such as China, where activists have been jailed for internet activities, but also dozens of others that have some limits on the web.

“Over the last five years, the internet has been carved up, colonized and militarized and is losing the properties we associate as being an open forum of free expression,” he said. “We’re trying to restore the original promise.”

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