Canadian university researchers have developed software that will let users hop over governments' Internet firewalls, raising the prospect of unfettered Internet access in countries that have long tried to control how residents use the web.
The Psiphon program, developed by computer experts at the University of Toronto, allows an Internet user in a country with no online curbs to set up an account for someone in a country that censors web content, and that person can then surf the net without restrictions.
"The communities that we're helping to connect to each other have a legitimate right to exercise their human rights within this governance regime," said Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which studies the interaction between human rights, technology and security issues.
He admitted Psiphon, which is set to launch Friday as a free download, could become a thorn in the side of governments that already monitor, limit and control what people read, watch, listen to and post on the Internet, with varying degrees of sophistication.
"It does conflict with some sovereign states' values, but there are competing legal norms at work."
Human rights groups, along with other critics, have accused countries like China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Egypt of clamping down of unfettered Internet use, blocking websites linked to or operated by opposition or independence groups. Some countries also censor sites from human rights groups, news services or gay and lesbian organisations.
"There is a bit of a global misconception that the Internet will make people free," said Human Rights Watch media director Minky Worden. "Tens of thousands of people are employed by the Chinese government and security organs to implement a system of political censorship on the Internet."
Deibert said Psiphon works by first allowing a person in a country like Canada that does not censor Internet content to set up a user name and a password for a person in a country that does -- China, for example.
The Canadian user would then pass on the information to the Chinese user, who would log on to the Canadian's computer and effectively use it as a server to browse the Internet without being censored by the Chinese government.
The web traffic between the two users is encrypted and secure, so China would have difficulty tracing the usage, he said.
But Deibert acknowledged that using Psiphon in countries where governments watch and censor how people surf the web could be considered illegal.
"In some countries, it might get you thrown in jail or worse, so there is a high security risk depending on the case," he said.
Psiphon will be available for download at http://psiphon.civisec.org.
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