Updated 4:59 PM EDT, Fri, Oct 11, 2019

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New plug-in Promises Quicker, Easier Way to Bypass Internet Censorship in China

Confronting The Great Firewall

(Photo : Getty Images/China Photos) People surf the Web in a cyber cafe in Chongqing Municipality, China. The country's 641 million internet users will soon be able to evade the government's internet censorship systems with the help of little browser plug-in being developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

China's 641 million Internet users will soon be afforded an easier, quicker route around the country's Internet censorship system as developers of a simple browser plug-in promise to punch a permanent hole through "The Great Firewall".

The little plug-in is called CacheBrowser, and is the brainchild of Amir Houmansadr and John Holowczak of the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst. 

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The MIT's Technology Review says the plug-in allows you direct access to practically all blacklisted data on the Web, and it does so without relying on cumbersome Web proxies.    

Internet censorship agencies typically rely on a system that prevents users from making end-to-end connections with banned websites.  This is done simply by blocking blacklisted IP addresses, or by preventing your computer from learning the IP address of the forbidden site, Houmansadr explains in a paper available at the UMass Amherst website.

The tools currently available to people who want to circumvent this mechanism rely on computers located outside a country that censors the Web.  Those computers, called proxy servers, access the banned websites for you, and then relay their content back to your computer.

While the system works, its plumbing inevitably adds another layer of data transmission between you and the website you want to access.  This increases your use of bandwidth, which, in turn, makes the transmission of data that much slower.

Imagine trying to tell a neighbor that his house is burning, but having to do so through a third person -- a translator -- between you. That is roughly akin to how online proxy server systems like Tor and encrypted VPN connections work, albeit with some variations between them.

CacheBrowser eliminates the need for Web proxies by exploiting a technology that companies use to make their pages load faster.  

The technology is called content caching, and it permits companies to load their data onto content delivery networks (CDNs) near you. This saves you time when you access their pages. When you go to a website like Facebook, for instance, your computer actually downloads the data from nearby servers in a CDN instead of a single origin server. 

Cachebrowser permits you to access data directly from CDN systems.  And this makes plug-in fast, easy to use -- and virtually unstoppable. 

Internet censorship agencies tend to stay clear of CDNs for fear of the likely collateral damage.  That is, in attempting to block just one IP address, they will have to block thousands, even millions, of other Web pages in the CDN, even those not on the blacklist.

The economic consequences of blocking a CDN could be tremendous for any country.  For China, it would be devastating.

The management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company, estimates that around 25 percent of China's small and medium enterprises rely on the Internet for key aspects of their operations.  China's e-tailing alone commands a market size estimated at  around $295 billion.

In 2014, Chinese Web censors blocked just one CDN owned by Verizon. The result was chaos as vast numbers of people and enterprises throughout the country were unable to access thousands of other sites, including those of crucial banking institutions.

Technology Review says CacheBrowser should work for more than 80 percent of the sites that Chinese censors block, including Facebook and Bloomberg.

Working versions of CacheBrowser for Chrome and Firefox are already downloadable on the Web.  They are as of yet unstable and difficult to install, but the developers are working on an improved version for the general public.      

That version should be widely available in China soon. 

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