So what is this “Peekabooty” thing I’m working on, anyway?
My friend Paul Baranowski (who often goes by his nickname, Drunken Master, for obvious reasons) is the leader, architect and lead programmer of the Peekabooty Project. On the evening I was sacked, he asked me to join the team to do some programming and accordion-powered developer relations work. Paul’s making the underlying engine, I’m making the user interface and graphics, and our friend Chris Cummer is maintaining Peekabooty’s Web site.
Paul and I will be speaking at CodeCon in San Francisco next weekend. We will deliver a presentation of Peekabooty and demonstrate the software in action. I also expect to be playing the accordion a lot. I’m looking forward to this trip for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is to catch up some friends who are also the bright lights of peer-to-peer computing: Jillzilla, Lisa, Bram, zooko, Jim, Coderman, Fawn, Luke, Ry4an and Fred, to name a few (if you’re going to be there and I’ve missed your name, drop me a line and give me hell).
I’ve been working on a little blurb that describes what Peekabooty is. While what’s being described is technical, the blurb is meant to be understood by the “average person” (keeping in mind the adage “the average person has one tit and one ball). Give it a look and tell me what you think.
The goal of the Peekabooty Project is to create a product that can bypass the nation-wide censorship of the World Wide Web practiced by many countries.
The free, easy and quick exchange of information possible on the Internet is seen as a threat by governments in countries where a free press and freedom of expression are not considered to the parts of their people’s rights. Such a government would have two options. The first would be to completely ban use of the Internet. This is an impractical measure, as it would close off that country to business opportunities and technological innovation. The preferred option is to make use of filtering computers and software – called firewalls in technological parlance – that make only those Web pages approved by the government available to their citizens.
In layperson’s terms, firewalls act as intermediaries between users and the rest of the Internet. In countries where the Web is censored, the only way to access the Internet is through the firewalls. A user enters a URL – the “address” of a Web page – into his or her browser. This URL gets passed to the firewall, which checks to see if it is one of those banned by the government. If the URL is not on the list, the firewall forwards the request for the Web page and the contents of the page are relayed back to the user, who can then read it. If the URL is on the “banned” list, the firewall refuses to forward the request and sends a page back to user indicating that the page he or she requested cannot be viewed by order of the government.
In addition to barring access to specified Web sites, firewalls can also monitor the data that passes through them. They can be configured to look for content that the government considers inappropriate or subversive and either make a note of who requested the content or simply break the connection.
21 countries currently censor the World Wide Web. These countries are populated by a hundreds of millions of people who have been denied access to information by their goverment. We want to create software that will give these people the free access to information on that Web that we enjoy.
How it works
Peekabooty is software that enables people inside countries where the Web is censored to bypass those censorship measures. The theory behind it is simple: bypass the firewalls by providing an alternate intermediary to the World Wide Web.
Peekabooty takes advantage of three things:
- Fast computers and Internet connections are becoming increasingly available at prices that ordinary people can afford. The speed at which ordinary computers can process information and access the Internet is such that ordinary people can run Web servers and services on their home computers and home broadband connections. Today’s home computers are so fast that they can perform many simultaneous tasks with little, if any, perceived sluggishness.
- National firewalls allow partial access to the Internet. It would be harmful to a country’s economic and technological well-being to block out the Internet entirely. Firewalls prevent access only to Internet addresses that appear on their “banned” lists. A government running such a firewall would have to be aware of a Web site that had content they did not want their citizens to see and then add it to the list. A government would likely be aware of high-profile sites run by large media organizations and human rights groups; it may also be aware of lesser-known sites, such as those run by their former citizens living in exile. However, it is unlikely that they will block access to an Internet address of a home computer they’ve never heard of.
- Concerned citizens around the world have embraced the philosophy of “thinking globally and acting locally”. Now more than ever, people are concerned about matters “beyond their own back yard,” such as the environment and human rights issues. They are giving to charities, taking part in demonstrations and joining or contributing to activist organizations. We are offering a way for concerned people to make a difference with minimal effort.
Peekabooty is software run by “global-thinking, local-acting” people in countries that do not censor the Internet. A user in a country that censors the Internet connects to the ad hoc network of computers running Peekabooty. A small number of randomly selected computers in the network retrieves the Web pages and relays them back to the user. As far the censoring firewall is concerned, the user is simply accessing some computer not on its “banned” list. The retrieved Web pages are encrypted using the de facto standard for secure transactions in order to prevent the firewall from examining the Web pages’ contents. Since the encryption used is a secure transaction standard, it will look like an ordinary e-business transaction to the firewall.
Users in countries where the Internet is censored do not necessarily need to install any software. They merely need to make a simple change to their Internet settings so that their access to the World Wide Web is mediated by the Peekabooty network. Installing the software makes the process of connecting to the Internet simpler and allows users to take fuller advantage of the Peekabooty network.
“Global-thinking, local-acting” people in countries that do not censor the Internet install Peekabooty, which can run “in the background” while they use their computer for their day-to-day work. It doubles as a screen saver that displays its status as well as information about human rights and censortship.
Peekabooty can be classified as a distributed or peer-to-peer application. This means that its actions are the result of several computers working collectively rather than a single computer doing all the work. The distributed nature of Peekabooty makes it harder for a hostile government or group to shut it down. Given enough users, it would be almost impossible to block access to or otherwise disable all the computers in the Peekabooty network. Each computer in the Peekabooty network “knows” of only a few other computers in the network. This makes it more difficult for a hostile government to discover the Internet addresses of Peekabooty machines and add them to their “banned” lists or target them for “cracking”.