The United States tested e-mail technology that bypasses foreign government censorship or even Internet shutdowns. But it's not yet clear how well it would have worked during the recent Internet shutdown in Egypt.
The United States
government has a special e-mail system that will allow information to be
transmitted even if a foreign government cuts off the country's news and
Internet communications with the rest of the world, according to a report from
the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent U.S.
agency responsible for all non-military international broadcasting. The BBG
controls seven international broadcast networks, including Voice of America.
Since news and Internet service has been restored to Egypt
as of Feb. 2, it's not likely the government will be using the technology
within the country at this time. It's unclear how well this system would work
in an Egypt-style shutdown, where Internet service was affected within the
country as well.
According to the report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act and
posted on GovernmentAttic.org
on Jan. 31
, BBG conducted a test in China
to bypass the country's censorship program between March and June 2010. The
test transmitted news feeds from Voice of America, CKXX and China Weekly using
the "Feed Over E-mail" (FOE)
system, the report said.
The FOE system transmits news feeds,
regular computer files and proxy
to recipients via compressed and encrypted e-mail
messages that can't be blocked by keyword filters, according to the report.
Recipients need an e-mail account with a service provider based outside of the
locked-down country, such as Google's Gmail service, to unpack the messages
sent by the FOE system back to its original
form, either as RSS feeds or downloading files, the report said.
"FOE can push new proxy addresses to
users so they can browse the uncensored Internet via one of our web-based proxy
servers," the report states. Users can also use FOE
to download free proxy network software from Tor, Freegate or Ultrasurf.
The system complements existing proxy networks used to bypass censors,
giving users access to blocked information, according to the report. The United
States already relies on proxy
to provide news to 21 countries, including Egypt,
Iran and Cuba.
"FOE is not a proxy solution but it
succeeded in what it intended to do," the team members wrote. "Once
set up, it worked automatically without user intervention," said the
An "anti-censorship team" at BBG's technology services and
innovation office performed tests over the FOE
system in Washington, D.C.;
Hong Kong; and two cities in China,
Shenzen and Beijing, according to
the report. The test used fairly mundane equipment, including a Lenovo T400
laptop running Microsoft's Windows 7 Ultimate, a Sony notebook with Windows XP
Professional and a Dell desktop with Windows XP Professional, the report said.
The transmissions were sent over China Telecom's residential broadband service
at a WiFi spot in a shopping mall, Chinanet, and Hong Kong's
But "while FOE performed well in all
tests, it is unclear how well the technology will work when it opens to the
public," the members noted.
In response to the popular demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak's 30-year rule, the government reportedly ordered the five largest
telecommunication carriers to turn
off Internet connectivity
on Jan. 27. The last remaining Internet service
provider, Noor Group, went dark on Jan. 31.
"In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian
government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all
international connections to the Internet," James Cowie of Renesys said in
a blog post.
As a result of the shutdown, users were unable to access sites outside of Egypt,
such as Twitter and Facebook, but it's unclear how extensive the shutdown was
for services within the country, Asaf Greiner, vice president of products at
Commtouch, told eWEEK. Access to the proxy networks can use a protocol
different from the one being blocked by the authorities, he said.
dozens of Internet providers, but with major carriers offline, their ability to
communicate was impacted. There were some telecommunications providers, such as
, who provided dial-up services to customers with landlines.
Google also implemented a speech-to-Twitter
In this kind of a situation, the FOE
system, had it been deployed in Egypt,
would have ensured information continued to flow in and out of Egypt
over the past five days.
In public remarks Friday night after a conversation with the beleaguered
Egyptian leader, President Obama said, "I also call upon the Egyptian
government to reverse the actions that they've taken to interfere with access
to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much
to connect people in the 21st century."