Canadian Web tool to circumvent online censors

University of Toronto researchers have developed a software program that will allow people in countries suffering from government-implemented Internet lockdown to access the web censorship-free.

Psiphon, released on Friday, is a software program that gets around Internet censorship by having groups of people in uncensored countries install it on their computer, which then acts as a proxy server, said Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. The users in the Internet-censored country then have their own unique login name and password to surf the Web unencumbered.

Deibert and his team at the Citizen Lab — including lead engineer Mike Hall, and Nart Villeneuve, and Michelle Levesque — are part of the OpenNet initiative, a joint project with Harvard Law School, Cambridge, and Oxford, which studies the pervasive Internet censorship in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Vietnam. “We interrogate the Net for evidence of content filtering. We do R&D at the intersection of security and human rights issues, which is unique, as the R&D is focused on human rights online, free speech and access to information,” said Deibert.

Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, has some concerns about the legal issues in play. “I have more concerns over the negative aspects than the positive aspects — we don’t condone (these countries’) laws, but, whether we like them or not, they have laws in place for certain reasons.”

Deibert has spent several years studying how best to flout those laws. His team realized that the commonness of the standard “http” designation was easy prey for content filterers, so they turned to the “https” stream, which is commonly used for financial transactions. Deibert said, “So then people eavesdropping on traffic couldn’t discern between the volume of financial flows.”

Many Internet censorship circumvention programs are difficult for the average person to use, but Deibert said even those with only the most rudimentary computer skills can utilize Psiphon. The product is also free and open-source, allowing for tech-savvy users to further tweak it for optimal user friendliness.

This spirit of camaderie is also present in how the program will be disseminated. “It is based on a social network of trust,” said Deibert, who said that people should only share Psiphon with friends and family — “people you know personally and trust.” Since the service isn’t a massive peer-to-peer network, Deibert said, Internet-censoring governments are less likely to shut them down due to the program’s below-the-radar status. He is counting on word of mouth to get Psiphon out there, and tentatively expects tens of thousands of users to eventually make use of the software.

Copeland is concerned that the proxies could lure trouble — like, say, if someone used the proxy computer to look at child pornography. “The problem is that what can be used for good can also be used for evil,” said Copeland. He said that the same principles that Psiphon operates under — a type of peer-to-peer network with proxies — is used by pedophiles to access to illegal material.

But, according to Deibert, the computer owner can check their log files to monitor the user’s Internet activity. “And this is where the social network of trust is important-it’s up to each person who sets Psiphon up to decide which people are using your computer. It’s like a cousin coming to stay at your house and they ask ‘Can I borrow your computer?’” said Deibert.

“I mean, (people using proxies to access illegal data) is going on now,” said Richard Rosenberg, vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group dedicated to maintaining human rights online. “Most of the Psiphon users will get the major benefits of being opened to new experiences and environments (online). With the Internet, we had high hopes that it would be a democratizing system that, even if your government didn’t want you to access information, you still could online. If Psiphon enables people to access sites that the government prevents them from accessing, it can only be for the good.”

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