When the Chinese government wanted to keep its users off Facebook and Google, it blocked the entire country's access to the U.S. companies' apps and sites. And when citizens started using third-party workarounds — like Tor, proxies and VPNs — to get around those blocks, it moved to quash those, too.
So a handful of researchers came up with a crazy idea: What if circumventing censorship didn't rely on some app or service provider that would eventually get blocked but was built into the very core of the internet itself? What if the routers and servers that underpin the internet — infrastructure so important that it would be impractical to block — could also double as one big anti-censorship tool?
It turns out, the idea isn't as crazy as it might seem. After six years in development, three research groups have joined forces to conduct real-world tests of an experimental new technique called "refraction networking." They call their particular implementation TapDance, and it's designed to sit within the internet's core.
In partnership with two medium-sized U.S. internet providers and the popular app Psiphon, they deployed TapDance for over a week this past spring to help more than 50,000 users around the world access the free and open internet — the first time such a test has been done outside the lab, and at such a large scale.
"In the long run, we absolutely do want to see refraction networking deployed at as many ISPs that are as deep in the network as possible," said David Robinson, one of the paper's authors, and co-founder of the Washington-based tech policy consulting firm Upturn. "We would love to be so deeply embedded in the core of the network that to block this tool of free communication would be cost-prohibitive for censors."
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