Toronto hits net censors

December 22, 2006

Project offers unrestricted access to the internet, reports Stephen Strauss

A Canadian university research project has begun to strike a blow against the mounting efforts by authoritarian governments to censor their citizens' access to the internet.

This month, the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab started making its "psiphon" software freely available over the web.

Psiphon - a made-up word with no intrinsic meaning - operates by first having a person in a non-censoring country download software.

This in effect turns their computer into a free information portal - the Toronto lab calls it a "psiphonode" - capable of being accessed by individuals from the more than 40 countries that censor web access.

To enter the system, a password and user name is forwarded by the psiphonode owner to people they trust or know in censoring countries. These IDs allow the latter to access the web without downloading any incriminating software on to their computer.

While there is other censorship circumvention software, it has proven relatively easy for governments to track their use and to shut down users.

A unique component of psiphon project is that the rerouting of forbidden information takes place via the same encryption software that is used by banks and other lending institutions to transfer funds and to conduct other financial transactions.

"The only way that you can shut this down is by shutting down all (such) connections and in effect shutting off all e-commerce," said Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab.

Citizen Lab sponsors projects that explore the cutting edge of hypermedia technologies and grassroots social movements, civic activism and democratic change.

The project is the offspring of the OpenNet Initiative, a consortium of researchers at Toronto, Harvard and Oxford and Cambridge universities who have combined to fight internet censorship around the world.

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