Awesome. Hard to believe China’s Internet cops can’t put their 50,000 heads together and spike it pretty quickly, but let’s not spoil the mood.

How it works:

To understand Psiphon, it’s important to first understand the idea of a proxy.

A proxy is a computer server in a free country such as Canada that a user in a censored country can tap into to access censored information and relay it back to the user. For years proxies have been considered a kind of ladder to cyberspace freedom.

The problem is that in order to use a proxy, you have to know about it. This means the proxy’s IP — a set of numbers that is the computer’s actual “address” on the Internet — has to be publicly advertised. This is usually done on websites and through email. So, it’s only a matter of time before the censors also catch wind and cut off access.

Enter Psiphon.

The program effectively turns anyone’s personal computer into a proxy server. Once the software is installed on a computer in, say, Canada, that person creates a contact list of trusted friends or family members in censored countries and sends his or her IP address to them. No advertising needed.

The censored user then connects to the computer running Psiphon and accesses banned content from there, all unbeknownst to the censor…

But Psiphon doesn’t stop there. Unlike most Internet traffic, Psiphon data is encrypted and shoots around the world on a network reserved for secure financial transactions, so a censor cannot see what the person is accessing. And a censor wouldn’t be able to tell a Psiphon request from a MasterCard purchase.

Another benefit is that most other proxy-type anti-censor programs have to be installed, so if a user is being watched, evidence is on his computer for the taking. With Psiphon, the censored user installs nothing, so it leaves no trace.

In the unlikely event a computer running Psiphon is uncovered and blocked, future versions of the program will be able to connect to other computers running Psiphon as backup.

Better fascist-busting through P2P technology: the more computers there are using Psiphon over here, the harder it is to block them all over there. If all goes well, one army of Davids begets another.

Perfect timing, too. Blogs are taking off like a rocket in Iran, where there are now more than 100,000 active sites, and in China, where by year’s end there’ll be an estimated 60 million bloggers. Iran is thinking of setting up a national intranet in order to prevent the passing of electronic samizdats while the Chinese are using student spies to monitor Internet activity at their schools and narc on anyone who steps out of line.

The biggest problem for Psiphon is the fact that many people in totalitarian regimes don’t realize how much information is being censored (thanks in part to Google and Microsoft, let us not forget), and therefore aren’t likely to go looking for it. From the IHT piece:

[I]nterviews with numerous students at a sprawling and well-manicured campus of Shanghai Normal University showed that few knew anything about the student-run monitoring, and none of those who had heard of it had imagined that such a large number of students had been enlisted for it…

“Five hundred members sounds unbelievable,” said a male undergraduate who gave his name only as Zhu. “It feels very weird to think there are 500 people out there anonymously trying to guide you.”

A lot of illusions will likely be shattered in the years ahead.

Bonus fun fact: One of the guys who designed Psiphon reads Marx and Chomsky and drinks from a Che Guevara coffee mug — which, given the type of work he’s engaged in, has to be some sort of attempt at post-modern irony.

Update: A reader sends along a link to a similar distributed-proxy service called Tor. Beating Psiphon to the punch?

Tags: China