Another tool makes Internet censorship obsolete

In line with my irrepressible contrarian streak, I've always viewed Internet censorship as a problem that is ultimately solvable and, thus, less important than other problems facing the Web. For example, we have no tools to fight the proliferation of spin or the growth of "enclave extremism" and homophily; both of these problems do not lend themselves to easy quantitative solutions and may turn out to be much more important in the long run.


Internet censorship, on the other hand, usually presents a rather boring set of challenges - e.g. "I can't get from A to B". As most such problems, it could be solved by clever tinkering with the system ("well, if you can't get from A to B, then go to C first and then use C to get to B" - this is the kind of anti-censorship solution that proxy-based technologies like TOR  have eventually embraced). 
 
As the GreenDam saga shows, the methods favored by censors evolve and get more sophisticated as well (today, Internet censors may not even let you think about etting to point B - you may never have the time to even consider the C option, as your browser will be shut down). There is, of course, nothing surprising about it: why wouldn't governments be doing this? After all, there are many smart techies working for the governments as well - and sometimes they even believe in and like what they are doing. 
 
However, usually there are many more talented people opposing the dictators - some of them foreigners - so my bet has been that the "good guys" will always be a few steps ahead, churning out the sophisticated technology that dissidents and activists could use to bypass censorship. I think that this view has proved correct: I can't think of a country in which those who REALLY want to access the banned content wouldn't be able to do so after 15-20 minutes of extensive googling (of course, it may take forever to download the anti-censorship software, particularly if you are on a poor connection somewhere in Africa or Central Asia, but this is besides the point; the point is that it would really take less than half an hour to find out HOW to do it). And I think the number of online resources that provide instructions on how to circumvent censorship barriers is growing exponentially (check, for example, the recently launched SESAWE, lavishly funded by the US government, which brands itself as "circumvention central"). 
 
All of the above has been equally true of both pull (browsing) and push (subscribing to RSS/email newsletters) technologies, even though I always had a feeling that governments were much more concerned about the pull side of the equation (those who wanted to subscribe to "critical content" were probably already lost causes, at least from the perspective of an authoritarian regime, and it's the hearts and minds of the undecided that truly matter). 
 
In its early days, RSS  technology has often been heralded as one of the ways in which information can be easily delivered to those who want it, even if the original web-sites carrying it are blocked. Well, as governments learned how to block RSS updates, this is no longer the case (and nobody knows for sure how closely the Chinese, for example, are watching RSS, but every now and then, there are disturbing reports that they are doing more closely than we would really like them to). 
 
Compared to RSS, email has always looked much more attractive - particularly, encrypted email that authorities can't easily inspect for keywords and other traces of critical content. It also helps that almost all Internet users have an email account, but only a tiny percent use (or have ever heard of RSS).

The problem is that email updates are not as ubiquitous as RSS and few high-quality web-sites cram full content of their articles into email newsletters (but there are quite a few of them that are beginning to experiment with full-text RSS content). So if someone could combine the ubiquity and security of email with the power of RSS, the problem of delivering critical content would have been solved. 
 
Well, it may have already happened. A recent report in VentureBeat points to another US government initiative - this time from the Broadcasting Board of Governors - that would use email services like Gmail and Yahoo (which are encrypted and usually secure from inspection by authorities) to deliver RSS content. The tool - called Feed Over Email - is currently in development, but, once read, it could serve as a proxy-less reader. 
 
I think that this is a great initiative: while governments constantly block proxy servers, there is no way that they will block Gmail, in part because many of them (and their children) use Gmail too. This also presents Google, Yahoo and other tech companies with a guilty conscience about their actions in China and elsewhere with a unique opportunity to offer their idle computer capacity for noble use. I haven't yet seen any reaction from the tech world, but this is something that they really need to spearhead, if they really like to prove their commitment to freedom and human rights. 
 
And, of course, kudos to the US government for not killing this initiative at the outset; I guess it was a little bit too complicated for the bureaucrats to understand what it actually does. Next step? Develop similar Firefox applications and browser add-ons. But, wait... As we learnt a few weeks ago, the US State Department refuses to use Firefox for cost-saving reasons. Too bad - had they been open to technology early on, many of their budget lines would shrink to zero by now...

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