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7/18/2011
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Telex Promises Path Around State-Sponsored Net Censorship

Tech researchers have developed a way that ISPs can help Internet users avoid censorship roadblocks.

Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, LocalPain
Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain
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A team of computer researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada and the University of Michigan has developed an anticensorship system by which ISPs can provide ways around network censorship.

J. Alex Halderman, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, in a blog post claims that the technology "has the potential to shift the balance of power in the censorship arms race."

The project, called Telex, exists right now only as a single server in a laboratory. The researchers--a group that also includes Ian Goldberg, associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo, and University of Michigan Ph.D. students Eric Wustrow and Scott Wolchok--have not offered specific deployment goals. They say that they hope the project inspires further discussion and research of censorship circumvention.

"[W]e have been using Telex for our daily Web browsing for the past four months, and we're pleased with the performance and stability," wrote Halderman. "We've even tested it using a client in Beijing and streamed HD YouTube videos, in spite of YouTube being censored there."

One way around traditional online censorship is the use of a proxy server, a server that acts as an intermediary to connect network traffic when the more direct path is blocked. The problem with proxy servers is that they too can be blocked, requiring new proxy servers to be established. This cat-and-mouse game is quite common in countries that censor the net.

Telex avoids this problem by creating what the researchers describe as a proxy without an IP address. After installing downloadable client software, a user wishing to access a blocked website can connect to a non-blocked site outside the censor's network. To the censor, this would appear to be a permitted connection; but the user would be redirected via Telex software installed at the ISP level and connected to the blocked site.

The researchers describe Telex as a way to counter state-level censorship. They note that ISPs would likely require some incentives from governments to deploy Telex.

The U.S. government might be ready to contribute. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has championed efforts to develop tools to fight Internet repression. In an address in February, she noted that grants worth $20 million have been awarded to further Internet openness over the past three years and that this year the grant total will reach $25 million. Internet freedom, she said, "is one of the grand challenges of our time."

Telex sounds promising but has a lot to prove. Using insecure anticensorship software in contravention of local laws can lead to imprisonment, torture, or death in some countries. This is why there was so much controversy last year when questions about the security of an anticensorship software project known as Haystack led to the effort's collapse.

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