6 Questions: One-on-One with Ronald Deibert, director, Citizen Lab

Software tool allows citizens to bypass Internet censorship.

The arrival of the summer Olympics in Beijing has brought to the forefront the Chinese government’s reputation for censoring Internet sites that contain, amongst other things, information about its human rights abuses. The University of Toronto’s Ronald Deibert knows the Internet censorship game all too well. Since 2001, the political science professor has run Citizen Lab, a research and development group at UofT’s Munk Centre for International Studies that examines and reports Internet censorship and surveillance around the world. In December 2006, Deibert and co. launched a software program aimed at bypassing web filtering. Psiphon, which Deibert has now incorporated as a separate entity from Citizen Lab, allows citizens in uncensored countries to provide, through their home computers, unfettered Internet access to friends and family members who live behind firewalls of states that censor. For his human rights work, Deibert was in 2006 honoured by Maclean’s magazine as one of 39 Canadians who helped make the world a better place. On the frontlines of the information war, we spoke to Deibert about Internet freedom and innovation.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing Citizen Lab and what are you doing about it?

We face major challenges in the work that we do. We face an environment where Internet censorship is rampant around the world. There are dozens of countries that routinely filter access to information. “Internet militarization” I would call it, has become a major problem. Computer network attacks are now a standard part of any major government arsenal. And the large powers are developing very sophisticated ways to take down sources of information, including the United States. Surveillance, of course, is an ongoing problem. It’s become even more pernicious now with things like deep packet inspection, and changes in the character of ISPs — how they operate in relation to traffic that is routed through them. So the operating environment that we work in is extremely challenging now.

In terms of what we’re doing about it, we’ve developed a project called the OpenNet Initiative that has grown from a handful of researchers at four universities to now encompass probably about two dozen NGOs and well over 100 researchers from dozens of countries around the world. And I think it is fairly widely recognized now as the leading authority on documenting Internet censorship. We use a combination of in-field research and investigations using sophisticated technical means. Primarily, we use software tools … that essentially lift the lid on the Internet and reveal what is going on beneath the surface so that we can expose government attempts to block access to information. We released the first truly global survey of Internet censorship that was published in our book with MIT Press this year called Access Denied.

And with the help of IDOC Canada, which is a development agency, we’ve now launched a new initiative called OMI Asia. It involved the participation of 15 countries throughout the Asia region, from China to Vietnam, India and Pakistan, that promises to really deepen and enrich our studies in that part of the world. So in the censorship area we’ve really grown to quite a formidable organization. And then lastly I would point out the software tool that we’ve developed — psiphon.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

I’ve been a Mac user for a long time and one of the things I admire about it is Apple has always put the user first and foremost. It’s tried to minimize as much as possible distractions that could come in between whatever it is that you want to achieve with their computer. And that actually from the outset was the aim of psiphon. We didn’t invent anything new, per se. There have been many previous proxy technologies out there. The problem was they were incredibly hard to use. You had to be a computer expert to set them up. It was very laborious — three different software installations. You had to operate a Linux system. What we wanted to do was make it so easy and so friendly that anybody could set up a psiphon node on a home computer. And now with the new version you don’t even need any software to do it. So that model of appealing to the average user and putting a lot of attention to design was really a reflection of what we’ve done with psiphon.

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

I think my greatest strength is in recognizing talent and bringing people together to work on collaborative projects. I think that’s illustrated well by, for example, the OpenNet Initiative where we were able to identify people who had the skills required to work on the projects that we wanted to mount. I’m not a technical person, I’m a political scientist. I really started out doing this almost from a naïve technical point of view. I had some general understanding of how the Internet worked but I knew I didn’t have the skills needed to do what I wanted to do, either on the research or development side. But what I did do was identify the people with those skills. At the University of Toronto that meant going outside of my department to computer science, to engineering — developing relations with people over there so that students, graduates and researchers who had skills that I required but weren’t finding outlets for their political desires … could find a home at the Citizen Lab. So I guess I’m a matchmaker more than anything when it comes to how I lead.

• You’re launching a new version of psiphon in the fall. What changes have you made?

First and foremost it’s entirely web-based. The way the original version of psiphon worked was by having someone download it on their home computer, and it turned that computer into a proxy. And they would then give that connection information to friends and family members who live in censored countries so that they could access banned information. And with the next generation of psiphon there’s no software to download. We’ve set up nodes that are designed in a tiered infrastructure that acts as a protection mechanism against blocking. And we assign nodes to individuals in organizations that they control through a web browser. What they do then is they invite friends and family members, just as they do with the older version, to share their node. So potentially even someone in a censored jurisdiction can be assigned and operate a psiphon node through this new service.

One of our aims with the first version of psiphon was to allow people access to blogs and wikis. That was our standard interface that we wanted to make sure people could access. With this new version it’s really the Web 2.0 that we’re trying to capitalize on. It allows access to streaming media, including YouTube, and we’re working on other protocols. And it allows secure uploading of video. So we’re working with major media organizations whose content is delivered through streaming media to make sure it’s accessible through this new version.

What impact does censoring the Internet have on innovation?

There are so many examples of how the Internet has fuelled innovation. It’s become a truism in business schools, in information studies, in political economy that innovation is driven by access to information. And so when you begin to remove or put in place barriers to access information, naturally it’s going to stifle it.

And I think that what’s most nefarious is when you’re in a country where censorship takes place, unless you can simultaneously experience the Internet from a different location, you may have no idea what’s going on. And in a lot of the countries, when you access banned information you don’t get a blocked message saying this information was banned. You get a timeout — an error. So it appears as though the information is not there or something’s wrong with your computer.

The original promise that the Internet once held out was that anyone, no matter where they connect, would have access to the same information. That was the original notion that drove the best and brightest of Silicon Valley. And now, unfortunately, instead of wiring the world, they’re doing the opposite. A lot of the companies that we’ve discovered that provide the tools that governments use to block access to information are based in Northern California. What we’re trying to do with psiphon is build a technology that supports that original notion of innovation that drove the Internet — the guarantee of uninterrupted access to free information.

What does innovation mean to you?

Innovation is about trying to understand complexity and drive change in a direction that’s positive and towards specific goals. Classically, I think the idea of innovation, especially in business environments, is finding ways to make profit. For me innovation is not about that, it’s about ways to protect and preserve human rights. So I have a political notion of social innovation.