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article imageDigital Journal Mavericks: The Man Behind Global Internet Freedom

By David Silverberg     May 24, 2008 in Internet
In the first article in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, introduces you to a free-speech advocate playing citizen hacktivist. Welcome to the censorship-busting world of Ron Deibert and his software Psiphon.
Digital Journal's Mavericks of 2008 series will profile 10 trailblazers in various industries, allowing you to learn more about the innovators and risk-takers who are making an impact in 2008. The series will run for 10 consecutive days, so check back each day to find out who is next.
Digital Journal — There’s a quiet movement of activism taking place on the Web. In an effort to provide every nation with unfettered access to websites, some tech experts want to banish censorship from countries such as China and Iran. Leading the charge is the Open Net Initiative at the University of Toronto, and theses libertarians have developed a powerful piece of software to let someone in a restrictive society gain safe access to the uncensored Web.
The Open Net’s Ron Deibert helped develop Psiphon since late 2006, and the free software has been downloaded more than 160,000 times. Psiphon helps computer users get around censorship; in countries like China, for example, the government blocks websites and moderates the Internet. So every time a Chinese Web surfer hits the Internet, they see a very different (almost scripted) version of it because sites must be approved by the communist government. To get around this, someone in the West can download Psiphon and send an invite to a Chinese net user who can then connect first to the PC in Canada, for example, before connected to the Web. By changing the country, Chinese censors are fooled into thinking the computer is based in North America and the Chinese Web user is not censored.
As the software’s FAQ explains more technically:
Psiphon acts as a ‘web proxy’ for authenticated psiphonites [user in restrictive country], retrieving requested web pages and displaying them in a user's browser. Psiphon uses a secure, encrypted connection to receive web requests from the psiphonite to the psiphonode [user in unrestrictive country] who then transports the results back to the psiphonite.
Deibert says Psiphon's connection flies under the radar of policing officials who monitor Web usage. “From the perspective of government monitors, using Psiphon looks like any financial transaction,” Deibert said in an interview with
The innovative software could be even more popular in light of the upcoming summer Olympics in Beijing, where China promises visiting journalists will enjoy an open Web but skeptics remain wary. The problem stretches beyond China -- more than 50 countries block access to portions of the Web that governments label politically or culturally sensitive.
Deibert spoke to not only about Psiphon’s role in opening the Net in China, but also about how governments spy on Net traffic and why Psiphon may not be free in the future. How would you rate China’s approach to Web censorship and it’s supposed commitment to open up the Web this summer?
Ron Deibert: I’ve noticed there are two contradictory positions: The Chinese government is ramping up the censorship around Tibetan websites and to portals that are used to access info about Tibet, like YouTube.
On the other hand, China is contractually obliged to the IOC to have an unfettered Internet during the Olympics, and there’s been lots of debate and controversy on how to fulfill that goal. One thing I’ve seen is that restrictions on English language sites that were often blocked, like BBC News, have now been unblocked. How does a country like China monitor Web traffic?
Deibert: There are international Web gateways in and out of China. All traffic passes through these gateways. It’s not much different in the U.S., where the NSA has set up an eavesdropping system on two main Net exchange points. The more I learn about what’s beneath the surface, the more I’m skeptical about the myth that the Internet that it’s entirely decentralized and can route around anything. So Net traffic handling has changed over the years?
Deibert: Definitely. We see it in the throttling of BitTorrent, and how a large ISP can make a decision that can have huge implication for customers and smaller ISPs.
Governments used to take a hands-off approach to how traffic should flow freely. But the pendulum is now swinging in the other direction. People out there need to research to find out how the Internet is constructed. Has working on Psiphon alerted you to countries that surprised you with their censorship practices?
Deibert: Actually, Internet censorship is a major global problem. There isn’t any region in the world where it’s not applicable. Psiphon is free now but is that a realistic model for Open Net?
Deibert: We deal with private companies, activist groups, and companies. We offer it free to them, but at some point people will have to pay for Psiphon in order for us to sustain it. Realistically, we’re not charging customers but investing in our infrastructure – we need to pay for servers and large portion of expenses is the staffing needed to mount this effort.
This is the first profile in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, focusing on trailblazers in various fields, from Internet to photography to music. Every day, read about a new industry maverick. Tomorrow, will talk to the creator of one of the most controversial Facebook applications ever made.
Other Mavericks:
- Jayant Agarwalla, the inventor of the Scrabulous game: Scrabulous riffs off the classic Scrabble board game, and it's become the center of a controversial lawsuit launched by Hasbro and Mattel.
- Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old jazz singer: Yanofsky is a teenage jazz prodigy who's already played Carnegie Hall and jazz festivals, giving audiences a taste of the talent brewing in her golden voice.
- Phil Borges, a photographer capturing the forgotten cultures of indigenous tribes: Passionate about foreign ways of life, Seattle-based Phil Borges wants to let the West know about endangered tribes and villages through his impacting photographs.
- Ben Popken, editor of blog The Consumerist: Few blogs fight for consumer rights as well as The Consumerist, which criticizes corporate scams big and small.
- Ausma Khan, editor of Muslim Girl magazine: Targeting an oft-misaligned demographic, Muslim Girl gives Islamic teens role models and advice on modern Muslim-American living.
- Patrice Desilets, creative director of gaming company Ubisoft: Game publisher Ubisoft is experimenting with new technologies and stretching its lineup past its Tom Clancy series.
- Pattie Maes, the woman creating human-tech relationships: As founder of MIT's Ambient Intelligence Group, Maes is bringing wildly inventive gadgets to our digital future.
- Jakob Trollback, a daring digital designer: Founder of Trollback + Company, Jakob has worked on stylish rebranding campaigns for HBO and CBS, while also dipping his feet into movie opening titles and music videos.
- Garrett Camp, founder of recommendation-friendly StumbleUpon: Through a top-secret algorithm, Garret Camp's StumbleUpon finds the websites that interest with you with one button click, acting as a blend of Google, Digg and word-of-mouth.
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