“Protecting Basic Human Rights”

Ronald Deibert
Ronald Deibert

How and why did the idea of developing this “human rights software” project come about?

Deibert: psiphon emerged out of research and development projects we have had going on at the Citizen Lab for many years now involving documenting patterns of Internet censorship worldwide, called the OpenNet Initiative. As part of that project we developed a certain level of expertise about how Internet filtering systems work. psiphon is also a part of the knowledge we acquired as we began to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the way in which people were trying to get around Internet censorship. There are many filtering system methods. Getting around them can be as simple as removing the www on the URL address or connecting to an open public proxy. Connecting to an open public proxy can be insecure; from the perspective of the authorities you can monitor all the traffic going through an open proxy.

How does psiphon work? How does the software avoid censorship?

Deibert: It works by having someone in an uncensored location download and install psiphon on their home computers and then give the connection information, which consists of a unique username, password and address for that psiphon-enabled computer to a few trusted friends and family members who live in any of the now more than 40 countries engaging in Internet censorship. They connect to psiphon through an encrypted channel and surf the web as if they were in the uncensored location. You don’t connect directly to content that is filtered by the authorities. That content is put on a black list, usually the address of the web site hosting the content, or a keyword related to the content. Instead you connect through an encrypted channel to a computer based outside of your country and make the connection through that computer.

What different methods of censorship can psiphon avoid? Is the software able to break through the Chinese (censorship) walls, for example?

Deibert: Yes, it gets through Chinese censorship. It can get around any form of Internet censorship, whether it is domain-name based, keyword based, or IP-address based – those are some of the different methods that are employed to block content. So the way it works is by having people use proxy computers instead of their own computers, based outside of the country that aren’t subject to the filtering regime, make the request for information and send it back to the user over an encrypted channel.

Where can a user obtain psiphon? Is everyone able to use the software and how much does it cost?

Deibert: It’s downloaded for free at http://psiphon.civisec.org/. One of the aims of the project was to make sure psiphon was as simple to use as possible so that anyone could install it and use it on their home computer. It’s a very small application – I think about three megabytes – and once you download it and double click on it, the installation process typically is about three minutes. It’s less burdensome than most of the software on your computer. The software itself and the actual user interface are available in English, Russian, and French, and there are frequently asked questions (FAQ) and a guide to psiphon that is available now in three languages: English, Spanish and Russian. Also, we’re working on translations to the software.

The solution has been available since December 2006. Do you already know who is using psiphon? Have you already received critical feedback from censorship authorities?

Deibert: Well the way the model works is that the users download psiphon, install it on their home computers in an uncensored location and then give the connection information to a few friends or family members. So we have no way of tracking which friends or family members use those psiphon nodes. We can tell how many nodes have been downloaded. And since December there have been more than 80,000 downloads of the software.

In terms of censoring regimes, the website is banned in China, Iran, UAE, and Yemen so far but that doesn’t matter for us based on the propagation model which assumes that people download the software in uncensored locations. There has been a flood of feedback: we have had lots of media attention and lots of users giving us feedback from positive to critical. The positive examples would be the feedback we have received from ethnic and human rights activists. They say there is a great improvement in ease of use and in security. From the critical side, any software project that is open source and controversial like psiphon raises criticism from those who disagree fundamentally with the idea of psiphon. There have been technical criticisms from programmers who point to vulnerabilities in the program’s logic or coding or say the user guide could be more detailed. We encourage the feedback in part to protect the users and to encourage users to look at the code and tell us what could have been done differently.

What dangers are users exposing themselves to by using psiphon in a country like China or Iran? Can governments track or block its use?

Deibert: In both respects, there are risks. There are always risks involved in pushing back in areas of human rights especially in those countries where doing this type of activity is against the law. We try to minimize those risks as much as possible. On the user end, for people in censored locations there is nothing to download. So, if you follow best practices on how to use psiphon and delete your cache at the end of your surfing session, there’s no trace left on your computer of your use of psiphon in case your computer is seized.

On the administrator or node side, there’s of course much less risk. But still there is some risk. You know you are responsible for what people do on your computer. To minimize the risks we allow the psiphon node administrators to view the log files of those to whom they give access on their computer, so they can see what sites they’re visiting. This is why the social network of trust aspect is so important to psiphon.

Wouldn’t you agree that certain content should be censored – say the glorification of violence, or child pornography? How can you prevent being lauded by the wrong people?

Deibert: It is a complicated question and there’s no simple answer. The bottom line I think is that there are basic human rights around access to information and freedom of speech that should be curtailed only in very exceptional circumstances. I am mostly a libertarian when it comes to this sort of issue but there are areas of speech and content that I do think should be regulated. Now once you agree that there should be regulation, there is a separate question as to the process. What oversight mechanisms exist to make sure governments are blocking that content? How do you go about blocking access to that content? Do you use filtering software mechanisms or are there other means you can use? So it takes you down this path that’s quite complex and needs to be thought through.

What psiphon does is simply raise the bar to the highest country denominator of Canada, the US, and some European countries rather than the lowest denominator of China and Iran. Those countries say they are blocking access to pornography but in fact they are blocking access to a wide swath of information, totally unrelated to pornography or terrorism. They’re blocking access to political opposition, to banned religious groups, to religious sites, to human rights information. They’re doing this under the disguise of blocking access to pornography and terrorism. You have to be careful about where you make exceptions to freedom of speech and accessing information, there needs to be very strict civilian oversight for reasons of transparency and accountability.

What do you want to achieve with psiphon, in the short and long term? Will the Internet one day be free from censorship?

Deibert: In the short term, we simply want to try to enable people to exercise their basic human rights. In the long term I think there is a struggle over the Internet’s architecture. For too long, people assumed the Internet was by default biased toward openness and freedom of speech and access to information, that it had some magical properties around its distributed network architecture that protected these principles. And I think that’s no longer the case.

Governments are quickly carving up, colonizing and militarizing the Internet environment. So, those of us that value freedom of speech and access to information online need to build tools to do research, to raise awareness and push for policies that protect the Internet as a forum of free speech and access to information. And unfortunately, since 9/11 especially, the pendulum has tilted in the other direction towards enclosure and secrecy and infringement on free speech and access to information.
psiphon is one small piece of a mostly grassroots project that hopes to restore that original promise of the Internet. There are other tools like psiphon out there – PeaceFire, Tor, and PGP, for example, are software tools that have been developed to protect freedom of speech, access to information, privacy online, and anonymous communication. All those things I think are essential to keeping the Internet open and free and we’re just one small part of that grassroots campaign.

Do you plan to develop psiphon further?

Deibert: We’re looking to continue to sustain the free open source version of psiphon which is difficult to do when you’re a small university lab and you have limited resources and limited funding. We’re looking at the possibility of creating a professional services model around psiphon that might bring a revenue stream in to support the free and open source version of psiphon.

What can free access to information achieve in political and cultural terms?

Deibert: Those of us that believe in individual human rights and liberty which has a long history obviously, believe that unfettered access to information is as important a component of individual liberty and human rights as is freedom of speech and freedom of thought and freedom of assembly. These are basic pillars of a classic liberal view of human rights. As a supporter of those principals I am trying to protect and preserve them in a form where individuals can connect to each other on a global scale, exercise their human rights and hopefully engage in communicative practices with each other and can help solve some of the common problems facing the planet. That’s what the Internet is all about. It’s not about accessing pornography or about selling products, although it is used for those purposes. It is at a bottom line a medium of communication through which individuals can exercise their basic human rights. We need to protect and preserve it as such.