What is the ‘Feed over Email’ system?
The US government is testing ‘Feed over Email’, a new technology that will allow web users in countries with internet censorship to bypass the blocks put in place by their political leaders. Here, we explain what FoE is, and how it works.
In countries such as Iran and China, access to information is tightly controlled. Newspapers and television stations have traditionally been state-run, toeing the party line, but the internet age has made it much more difficult for governments to ensure citizens are not exposed to controversial or contradictory information, or news from other countries that may inflame the anger or sensibilities of the populous.
China, famously, has its “Great Firewall”, an internet filter designed to prevent access to pornography, unapproved news websites, and even information about the banned group Falun Gong. The Great Firewall “sniffs out” web searches for censored material, and when it matches those searches against a blacklist of topics or words, access to those sites is halted on the servers.
The Chinese government has abandoned plans to roll out its Green Dam software on every computer in the country. This tool would effectively have bought censorship directly in to the home, stopping at source any searches or web use deemed inappropriate by the government.
None the less, it demonstrates the determination of repressive regimes to crack down on free access to information, and has sparked efforts from outside organisations to ensure such technical constraints can be circumvented.
Feed over Email is one of the most recent efforts. It’s a new technology being pioneered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a US federal agency, to get around the blocks put in place by government censors.
Traditionally, one of the ways governments have been able to block access to information has been by blacklisting the unique internet protocol address used to identify “inappropriate” sites. Websites can get around this by changing their IP addresses, or sending users to proxy servers, which disguise which site the user is attempting to connect to. But governments are growing increasingly savvy, and continuously block the new IP addresses and proxy servers as they are assigned, engaging websites in an endless and impossible cat-and-mouse game.
So, researchers are looking at ways of harnessing existing internet technologies to avoid this problem, which is where Feed over Email comes in. Sho Ho, a researcher for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, believes email could be the solution.
Internet users in China or Iran would need to open an email account with a company based outside of their own country, such as Yahoo! and Google’s Gmail, to overcome one of the first initial censorship hurdles. That would then allow them to use their email as what Ho calls a “proxy-less RSS reader”.
In other words users could be sent a specially formatted email containing feeds from external news outlets. It would be similar to sending an email with HTML code in it, says Ho, and could prove to be the ideal workaround.
The user would decide what news feeds they want to receive, and when the Feed over Email server receives their request, it would be able to email those feeds back to the user’s email address and display the feeds on the user’s screen, without them needing to retrieve those articles from the internet.
Ho says that although the process sounds complicated, the system is actually relatively easy to use, and the RSS feeds can be quickly erased if the user comes under scrutiny from the authorities. Feed over Email is flexible enough to handle not only text-based news feeds but also small files and podcasts. In time, the service might even be able to be applied to mobile phones, allowing people in countries where that’s the predominant means of accessing the internet to enjoy the same kind of freedom of information as those using computers.