'U' team aims to expand digital freedom through Telex program

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published August 7, 2011

Though Internet access is essentially unrestricted in the United States, citizens in other countries do not always have free-range over its resources due to usage restrictions imposed by their governments — an issue a group of University students is trying to alleviate.

Alex Halderman, assistant professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University, and graduate students Eric Wustrow and Scott Wolchok are aiming to make digital freedom a global right with their newly developed Telex system.

Telex, which began development in fall 2010, aims to serve as a prototype to end the “cat and mouse game” between proxy site users and restrictive governments, Wolchok said, since citizens in Internet-restricted countries must use proxy websites in order to visit banned addresses.

According to Wustrow, Telex is a two-part system where users download software that allows Telex stations to act as a proxy site outside of the restricted country. He noted that one major difference between a typical proxy website and Telex is that proxy websites often have only one IP address that needs to be blocked, but Telex will have multiple addresses, making censorship very difficult.

Wustrow added there are only a handful of undersea cables to China, but Telex stations would be sufficient for the program to work there. Nonetheless, there are still several hurdles to the implementation of this program.

For example, Wustrow said there is no definitive price, but each Telex station could cost thousands of dollars and the stations would have to be incentivized for Internet Service Providers to install them. He added that in return for installing Telex stations, ISPs could sell the service to users to subsidize costs or the U.S. government could sponsor efforts toward increased Internet freedom.

According to the United Kingdom technology website www.theregister.com, the U.S. government supported a similar program called Anonymiser in 2003, which aimed to provide an insurmountable number of proxies for Iranian citizens. However, Wustrow described this direct foray into international digital freedoms as atypical.

Among Internet-censoring countries, China has seen the largest increase of Internet users and citizens have uncovered various ways around censorship, according to Mary Gallagher, director of the University’s Center for Chinese Studies.

“Chinese Internet users are becoming increasingly sophisticated and they’re also becoming increasingly dissatisfied with censorship,” Gallagher said. “Chinese society has become more adept at using information technology to get around censors.”

She added that since China currently blocks Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and similar websites, people have created alternatives sites like Weibo — a website comparable to Twitter.

While the Chinese government blocks many international social networking websites, Gallagher said other Chinese social networking websites have been useful and effective for social activists.

She added that in the aftermath of a recent crash of a passenger train in the Zhejiang province, Chinese social media websites provided a forum to discuss an event largely unmentioned by traditional media.