Published in the New York Times
November 27, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER MASON
TORONTO, Nov. 21 — Deep in a basement lab at the University of Toronto a team of political scientists, software engineers and computer-hacking activists, or “hactivists,” have created the latest, and some say most advanced tool yet in allowing Internet users to circumvent government censorship of the Web.
The program, called psiphon (pronounced “SY-fon”), will be released on Dec. 1 in response to growing Internet censorship that is pushing citizens in restrictive countries to pursue more elaborate and sophisticated programs to gain access to Western news sites, blogs and other censored material.
“The problem is growing exponentially,” said Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which designed psiphon. “What might have started as censorship of pornography and Western news organizations has expanded to include blogging sites, religious sites, health information sites and many others.”
Psiphon is downloaded by a person in an uncensored country (psiphon.civisec.org), turning that person’s computer into an access point. Someone in a restricted-access country can then log into that computer through an encrypted connection and using it as a proxy, gain access to censored sites. The program’s designers say there is no evidence on the user’s computer of having viewed censored material once they erase their Internet history after each use. The software is part of a broader effort to live up to the initial hopes human rights activists had that the Internet would provide unprecedented freedom of expression for those living in restrictive countries.
“Governments have militarized their censorship efforts to an incredible extent so we’re trying to reverse some of that and restore that promise that the Internet once had for unfettered access and communication,” Dr. Deibert said.
When it opened in 2000, the Citizen Lab, which is one of four institutions in the OpenNet Initiative (opennetinitiative.org), was actively monitoring a handful of countries, mainly China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that censored the Internet. But citing increased filtering by governments, the lab now monitors more than 40 countries.
The program’s designers say existing anticensorship programs are too complicated for everyday computer users, leave evidence on the user’s computer and lack security in part because they have to be advertised publicly, making it easy for censors to detect and block access to them.
“Now you will have potentially thousands, even tens of thousands, of private proxies that are almost impossible for censors to follow one by one,” said Qiang Xiao, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Instead of publicly advertising the required login and password information, psiphon is designed to be shared within trusted social circles of friends, family and co-workers. This feature is meant to keep the program away from censors but is also the largest drawback because it limits efforts to get the program to as many people as possible.
The software is also designed to allow users to post on blogs and other Web sites like Wikipedia, which has been a problem for some other anticensorship programs. By requiring only login information and no installation, psiphon is intended for anyone with basic computer knowledge because psiphon functions much the same as any typical browser.
“So far it’s been tech solutions for tech people,” said Dmitri Vitaliev, a human rights activist in Russia who has been testing psiphon in countries where the Internet is censored. “We have not had very good tools so everyone has been eagerly awaiting psiphon.”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company