A US agency is working on a system that will allow people to get around government Internet censors by using e-mail. The tool will be tested in China and Iran, where it should offer yet another option for those stuck behind the filters.
Citizens living in China, Vietnam, Iran, and other countries may soon have another option for bypassing Internet filters, courtesy of a US-based agency. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) announced on Friday that it was working on a new system that would use e-mail to carry encrypted data to and from the recipient, including information that would otherwise be blocked.
The system, called “feed over e-mail” (FOE), is not yet ready for primetime, but BBG IT head Ken Berman said that it will be tested in China and Iran when it goes into beta. “China is the benchmark, the gold standard, of Internet censorship,” Berman told the AFP. “We try things. The idea is to extend freedom of the Internet, freedom of the press, freedom of inquiry to those that want to know more.”
Because the BBG would like to avoid tipping off the two governments before the software even gets to be tested, there are few details on how FOE currently works. It does, however, appear to be taking a different approach to filter circumvention by using e-mail instead of the traditional Web proxies used by some of the more prominent systems. Berman said that FOE uses encryption that comes with most e-mail systems, including Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and even Hotmail, to transmit news. One individual who helped develop FOE, Sho Ho, told Reuters that it could easily be tweaked to work with mobile phones, as well.
The announcement about FOE comes just as Internet censorship seems to be all over the news—China and Malaysia recently scaled back their plans to mandate more filtering, while Vietnam added an additional layer. These three are just the beginning, though; Reporters Without Borders also points the finger at Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan for being “Enemies of the Internet,” and numerous others engage in some level of blocking or filtering.
FOE is making headlines because of its different approach to delivering content, not to mention that it’s essentially being funded by taxpayer dollars (BBG is responsible for Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and all other non-military broadcasting for the US government). For many of the people behind the filters, however, FOE will just offer yet another option for getting around the government’s restrictions.
“Chinese netizens have been using proxy servers to access the information blocked by the government for a long time, FOE is just a more convenient tool,” China New Media Communication Association director Hu Yong told the China Daily. Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab even released a guide to bypassing Internet filters in 2007 that contains a list of proxy and tunneling software, so if FOE makes it to a final release, it will likely be added to the list of possible choices for those looking for forbidden information.
- By Jacqui Cheng | ARS
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