Canadian software tool blows away Net censorship, wins global award

Canadian software designed to evade government censorship of the Internet is the first recipient of a new award for digital pioneers chosen by an international group of specialists and awarded in Paris in mid-February.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab designed Psiphon for citizens of countries that block access to many Web sites.

Psiphon evades such censorship through an encrypted connection between the user’s computer (in the country with Internet censorship) and another piece of software – essentially a Web proxy – on a volunteer’s computer in a country where Internet access is not controlled.

Psiphon was chosen from about 100 technology projects from around the world that were nominated for the Netxplorateur of the Year Grand Prix award.

Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin presented the award to Ronald Deibert, a University of Toronto professor and director of the Citizen Lab, and Michael Hull, head of spinoff company Psiphon Inc., at a Paris ceremony in mid-February.

An international network of specialists chose the initial list of 100 projects considered to be “concrete and innovative at the same time, but also loaded with meaning,” according to Ingrid Brégeon-Fall, a spokeswoman for the awards.

This was narrowed to a short list of 10 Netxplorateurs of the Year, from which the Citizen Lab was chosen the Grand Prix winner.

This is the first year the prize has been given, Brégeon-Fall says. There is no cash award associated with the prize.

The Citizen Lab has been researching Internet censorship for several years, Deibert says.

It has seen a gradual growth in the number of countries practicing it, from only two or three in 2002 to 26 countries where there was some evidence of sites being blocked in 2006.

The six countries that censor Internet access the most are China, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran and Uzbekistan, Diebert says.

Danny O’Brien, international outreach co-ordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group concerned with Internet freedom, describes net censorship as “a growing problem.”

That’s due partly to the advance of filtering technologies, he says. “More and more countries are finding ways to do fine-grained censorship of the Internet.”

O’Brien says that is fueling a technology arms race between censors and groups like the Citizen Lab.

Citizen Lab senior researchers came up with the concept of Psiphon in 2004, Diebert says.

According to the Citizen Lab, Psiphon’s design makes it virtually impossible to detect and block.

A computer user with unrestricted Internet access can download and install a small Psiphon application from the Web site at the Psiphon Web site.   

They then give the unique connection information for this node to a friend or relative in a country with restricted access.

This connection information is the computer’s Internet Protocol (IP) address with an extension chosen by the user.

Only people who know the address of a Psiphon node can use the software to evade Internet censorship.

The Citizen Lab and Psiphon Inc. are now working on a plan to host Psiphon nodes themselves on behalf of trusted individuals in censored countries, Diebert says.

Those people would be able to control the nodes and give out access information to people they trust.

A government that monitored Internet use and became suspicious of repeated connections to an IP address in a distant country could detect that someone was using Psiphon, and could block access to the specific node, says Deibert, but that would not affect the many other nodes.

Being detected could be dangerous for citizens in some countries, he adds.

So a person who is being watched would probably not be safe using it, but for ordinary citizens, detection is unlikely.

Psiphon is free, open source software and has been available from the Citizen Lab since 2006.

As of last week, Diebert says, 145,000 copies had been downloaded. He adds that the Citizen Lab has had no reports of any of those nodes being detected and blocked.

Recently, the Citizen Lab launched a startup company called Psiphon Inc. which will provide professional services for media outlets and other organizations that want to use the software for unrestricted Internet access.

Reporters covering the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer will need a way of gaining unrestricted access to the Web while working in China.

Psiphon Inc. is working with several media companies – which it can’t name because of possible repercussions from the Chinese government – to provide open communications from Beijing, says Hull.

Psiphon is also working with non-governmental organizations such as Witness.org, which operates a Web site documenting human rights violations.

Witness.org wants to ensure access both so that people in countries with censored Internet access can both view the site and send information to it, Hull says.

Psiphon has previously been recognized by Esquire magazine, which named it one of Six Ideas to Change the World in December 2007, and by Fast Company magazine, which listed Psiphon Inc. as one of 50 companies to watch for in 2007.

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