Proxy-based search engine joins local filter battle

Netherlands-based Ixquick offers proxy, SSL encryption and IP address security to Australians in face of proposed Internet filtering scheme

A Netherlands-based meta-search engine has opened its doors in Australia for the first time in an effort to help users circumvent the Government's proposed mandatory Internet filtering scheme.

Startpage Australia, an English-language version of Ixquick, claims to be the most private search engine in the world by deleting user IP addresses after searching, as well as offering SSL encryption and, more recently, an integrated proxy to anonymise all traffic linked through search results.

While the proxy has been available since January, company spokesperson, Katherine Albrecht, told Computerworld Australia that the expansion to Australia would be the first time the proxy has been offered for a particular purpose.

"The key thing we're trying to do is to bring some international attention to the plight faced by Australia with the potential of Internet censorship," she said.

Under the Government's filtering scheme, users would be barred access at the Internet service provider (ISP) level to websites which host refused classification material, as mandated by the Classification Board and enforced under a blacklist held by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). While some ISPs have expressed their commitment to such a scheme, not all are in favour.

Nevertheless, as in China and other countries which have a similar scheme, users can still circumvent the filter by using proxies.

"It would be interesting to see how the Australian government responds to our proxy service," Albrecht said. "That's a battle we'll fight when it comes to that point."

Communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has been reported as saying that such circumvention methods would continue to be legal if the filter is ever enforced.

One pro-euthanasia organisation, Exit International, has already begun educating the elderly on how to circumvent such a filter.

Ixquick's proxy servers are currently hosted in Netherlands, while servers for its search engines are currently hosted in the US and Europe. Chief executive officer, Robert Beens, said that the company would consider hosting some servers locally if performance demands warranted such an action, but said that such a move would be considered in balance with any potential privacy concerns in moving servers to another jurisdiction.

Ixquick doesn't have its own search index; instead, search results are fed via proxy through nine different third party engines - including Bing, Yahoo, Ask, Altavista and Lycos - with results combined and duplicates eliminated in the final results page for the user. Beens claims this eradicates any artificial ranking from search engine optimisation (SEO) while also providing Startpage Australia with a greater index of the Web.

The use of different search engines also means Startpage Australia isn't as prone to censored search results as a single search engine.

Albrecht conceded that Startpage Australia does initially see the user's IP address, and tailors sponsored search results based on the search query. However, IP addresses and other personal information are not forwarded to the search engines used or any website linked through the search results. European privacy consortium, EuroPriSe, found Ixquick deleted all non-personal information within 14 days, and awarded the company its first ICT-focussed privacy seal in 2008.

Ixquick, which has served 1.2 billion search results in nine languages since its inception 10 years ago, is yet to face larger privacy challenges in the likes of China and Burma. While Albrecht said the company had fielded queries from users within the countries, these make a minimal proportion of its overall user base.

"I'd like to see more users coming in from Burma, or certain places where there's a real need for what we do," she said.

The company is also looking to introduce a private web-based email system by the end of the year, with the additional ability to possibly securely download email and delete it from the server. The new service would be targeted directly against Google's Gmail, which scans users' emails for keywords to use in tailored advertising.

"Any Internet censorship or data collection by governments or corporations without peoples' express consent is problematic; our whole business model is based on that belief," Albrecht said.

While typically respected as aggregators of information around the Internet, key search engines like Google and Yahoo! have been embroiled in privacy issues over recent years, mainly surrounding requests for information from US and Chinese governments. While Google has recently announced an end to its cooperation in censoring Chinese search engine results, it fielded 17 requests in 2009 alone from the Australian government to remove content or provide information.

"Google's database of information is the single biggest dossier of information ever collected on anyone in all of human history," Albrecht said. "They've become a target for governments or hackers that want information about people."

However, Startpage Australia's lack of personal information means Ixquick doesn't have the same commodity of user information.

"Even if they were able to obtain jurisdiction, there would really be nothing to get," Albrecht said.

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Tags Googlesearch enginesYahoointernet filteringSenator Stephen ConroyIxquickStartpage Australia

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