Open source tool could sniff out most heavily censored websites

Georgia Tech researchers are seeking the assistance of website operators to help better understand which sites are being censored.

Georgia Tech researchers are seeking the assistance of website operators to help better understand which sites are being censored and then figure out how to get around such restricted access by examining the data collected.

The open source Encore [Enabling Lightweight Measurements of Censorship with Cross-Origin Requests] tool involves website operators installing a single line of code onto their sites, and that in turn will allow the researchers to determine whether visitors to these sites are blocked from visiting other sites around the world known to be censored. The researchers are hoping to enlist a mix of small and big websites, and currently it is running on about 10 of them.

The code works in the background after a page is loaded and Georgia Tech's team claims the tool won't slow performance for end users or websites, nor does it track browsing behavior.

"Web censorship is a growing problem affecting users in an increasing number of countries," said Sam Burnett, the Georgia Tech Ph.D. candidate who leads the project, in a statement. "Collecting accurate data about what sites and services are censored will help educate users about its effects and shape future Internet policy discussions surrounding Internet regulation and control."

(Burnett's adviser is Nick Feamster, whose Internet censorship research we've written about in the past. I exchanged email with Feamster to gain additional insight into this new research.)

End users won't even know the baseline data measurement is taking place, which of course when you're talking about censorship and privacy, can be a sticky subject. Facebook learned that recently week when disclosures erupted regarding its controversial secret study of users' moods. The Georgia Tech researchers in an FAQ say their tool can indicate to users that their browsers are conducting measurements, and that users can opt out.

"Nothing would pop up [in an end user's browser] but a webmaster has an option to make the measurements known/visible," Feamster says.

"They also assure potential Encore users that the list of censored sites compiled by Herdict does not include pornographic ones, so an end user's browser won't be directed to such sites in the name of research.

Encore, which is being funded by a National Science Foundation grant on censorship measurement and circumvention as well as via a Google Focused Research Award, has been submitted in hopes of presenting it at the Internet Measurement Conference in November in Vancouver.

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