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    Google Bets That Social Networking Can Thwart Internet Censorship

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Facebook friend connections around the world, via 

    It's a familar scene for devious teenagers everywhere: If you're under 21 and want to get into the bar, borrow the ID of someone who's of age. Now apply that same concept to the task of evading the web censors of the world's iron-fisted regimes, and you've got the basic idea behind uProxy, Google's new censorship circumvention tool.

    uProxy is a browser extension that taps your online social network to link up users in countries with internet oppression to their friends in places with free access to the web. Once the connection's made, the would-be-restricted user adopts their friend's safe IP address, and is able to avoid the blocks that would normally be associated with their location. 

    Google announced the project yesterday at the Google Ideas Summit in New York, along with two other new initiatives to promote free expression.

    It's essentially a personalized virtual private network—hence the very Web 2.0 name "uProxy."—and it taps into your existing networks like Google Hangouts, Facebook, chat, and some email. It works like this: Imagine that Beijing one day decided that Motherboard needed to be "harmonized" on China's internet. You live in China and want to read Motherboard. You log into Facebook, send a chat to your American friend who's downloaded the uProxy browser extension, and an encrypted link is established between the two of you. Then when you head over to Motherboard's website, the tool first routes the internet traffic through your friend's computer and adopts their unrestricted IP address for the rest of your journey through the web.

    It's a very Silicon Valley technology-can-save-the-word approach to outsmarting authoritarian regimes—but can it work? Lucas Dixon, Google's lead engineer on the uProxy project, told me the social aspect is what the company's betting will make this tool work where other VPNs and proxies have struggled.

    One of the major challenges of circumvention technology is that there's not a lot of incentive for people to run a proxy, because you're basically supporting anyone online doing anything at all—and you're held responsible for any nefarious activity, explained Dixon. In the other direction, your proxy could stab you in the back. By sticking to friends and family, the idea is uProxy introduces trust.

    The other challenge is how to make it scale. Once a lot of people start using a VPN it becomes easy to detect and block. But since uProxy is personalized, it moves with each individual user, not a centralized network.

    The technology behind uProxy was developed by the University of Washington and the nonprofit Brave New Software, and seeded by Google Ideas. Surely the tech behemoth will prove an interesting new player in the cat and mouse game between government censors and the tech-savvy web denizens trying to stay one step ahead of them. Google getting in the game could help simplify the proxy process and encourage even non-techie citizens to join the network. "It's just two clicks to run a proxy service for your friends, or two clicks to access one," said Dixon.

    uProxy launched as more of an experiment than a finished product, and for now is in a trial period restricted to trusted beta users. Google is taking pains to avoid repeating the sad fate of circumvention tools past that launched riddled with security holes. But even if it can promise user security, it will need users. So will people actually use it?

    When I posed that question to Ali Bangi, director of the Iranian anti-censorship nonprofit ASL 19, he suggested the key to uProxy's success will be to package it as a fun and cool new technology for anyone to use, rather than an anti-authoritarian, freedom-fighting weapon for dissidents. The latter would not only draw attention from regimes' censors and incite them to take action to block the tool, it could also scare off potential users, Bangi said.

    Google, for its part, is promoting uProxy as beacon for freedom of expression—a new way for the netizens trying to peek behind Iran's Electronic Curtain and scale China's Great Firewall. Dixon said people in restricted countries around world already have trusted friends and family abroad that they communicate with to access and share information. The hope behind uProxy is to expand that network out even further.