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As Internet censorship continues in countries such as China and Burma, efforts to circumvent it are growing more sophisticated. (See “Burma’s Internet Crackdown.”) Researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto are adding new capabilities to one such project, called Psiphon, in hopes of expanding its reach in censored countries.

Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, explains that Psiphon relies on trusted social networks to help users circumvent censorship. “It’s not so much about technology as it is about people determining what’s going on and responding in an intelligent way,” he says.

The original version, launched in December 2006, calls for people in uncensored countries to host proxy servers for people in censored countries. Because the censored user’s personal safety may be on the line, Deibert says, the researchers suggest that she connect only with people she knows and trusts. By downloading open-source Psiphon software, the uncensored user sets up a node that the censored user can access. Psiphon is designed to resemble the use pattern of a standard banking transaction, says Michael Hull, Psiphon’s lead software engineer. As long as the user accesses Psiphon sparingly, and when she really needs it, this should not create any unusual patterns that censors might notice. Because each of the Psiphon nodes is a small, private network that is disconnected from the others, they’re hard for censors to find and block. In addition, if censors block one node, that has no effect on the others.

The problem, says Hull, is that “there’s still that Achilles’ heel of someone living in a censored regime needing to know someone who lives in [a place like] Boston.” To solve this, the Citizen Lab group is building the Psiphon Web service, which allows users in censored countries to host Psiphon nodes without having to download software. (A downloaded program could put these people at risk by providing evidence of censorship circumvention on their hard drives.) “We want to empower people who live in censored countries to host their own servers,” Hull says.

The Open Net Initiative, which researches Internet censorship worldwide, has identified pervasive filtering in countries including Burma, Iran, China, and Vietnam. (See “Internet Increasingly Censored.”) And censorship can go far beyond blocking obvious signs of dissent: one video made in Iran shows a person trying to use Google to search for “women’s studies” and finding that the search results are forbidden.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge, says that Internet censorship is part of a long tradition of government attempts to control communications. While it’s difficult to successfully censor the Internet, Anderson says, governments try anyway, blocking content from the average user. “Against people who really know what they’re doing, you don’t have much chance,” he says. “But many governments take the pragmatic view that if they can stop mass access to subversive stuff, that’s worth doing.” Effective censorship is a multilevel process, and, he adds, in oppressive regimes, they back it up with policemen. “If you use the obvious technical mechanisms to defeat, say, the Great Firewall of China, and they get to know about this, then they’ll send guys to knock on your door,” Anderson says.

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Credit: Citizen Lab, University of Toronto

Tagged: Communications, social networks, censorship

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