NET NEWS: A Censor-Proof Internet?

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Science  14 Jul 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5477, pp. 211
DOI: 10.1126/science.289.5477.211c

For civil libertarians, the promise of the Internet as a forum for free expression remains unfulfilled. Not only have China and other countries cracked down on content on their government-controlled networks, but even in the free world, Internet service providers have agreed to yank Web pages that certain groups found offensive. Now volunteers are gearing up to test a scheme that may foil censors' plans.

It's not hard to track down the computer hosting a Web page; the domain name can be enough. But computer scientists at AT&T and New York University have now devised a way to blur a document's origin. Called Publius after the pen name of the authors of the Federalist Papers, the system works by encrypting a document a number of different ways that can't be decoded individually. Instead, the meaning becomes clear only after several versions are combined. Publius will send coded copies of a sensitive document to a large number of different servers. Each copy looks like nonsense, even to the person who runs the server. To read a Publius-encrypted file, a computer combs the Web for a few encrypted copies and combines them to reconstruct the original. “There's no central place where everything is stored,” says co-inventor Avi Rubin of AT&T.

A 2-month test of the service will be conducted beginning 28 July, and the community seems eager to help. “We've got a lot more volunteers than we can use,” says Rubin.

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