The software enables PC users running Microsoft's Windows XP or 2000 operating systems to set up a simple version of what's known as a circumvention Web server, or a computer that essentially digs a tunnel under a firewall set up by a government, corporation, school or other organization.
In this case, the United States is eyeing the millions of Chinese Web surfers stuck behind their government's firewall--as well as other people around the world who are prevented from downloading American news and propaganda.
"The news is highly censored," said Ken Berman, program manager for Internet anticensorship at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which puts out the Voice of America radio and Internet transmissions, along with other international programs. "The Chinese government jams all of our radio broadcasts and blocks access by their people to our Web site. We want to allow the people there to have the tools to be able to have a look at it."
China keeps a particularly strong lock on the Internet. The government has blocked popular search engines and prevailed on Western companies such as Yahoo to voluntarily restrict their Web content in China. In one U.S. study, China was found to be blocking 19,000 Web sites including those providing news, health information, political coverage and entertainment.
In November, Amnesty International named 33 companies including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems that it said were providing the Chinese with technology to achieve its Internet censorship aims.
The idea behind the U.S.-backed software is to allow someone trying to evade a firewall to tunnel under it via a third-party computer not blocked by the firewall. The software, which uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), lets the person who installs it set up a miniature Web site through which a firewall-restricted surfer can access the rest of the Web.
In addition to circumventing firewalls, the software also creates anonymity by covering the Web surfer's tracks and leaving no record of what sites he or she visited beyond the miniature Web site.
The software being tested grew out of a December roundtable in which participants raised the possibility of skirting the Chinese information blockade. In response, the IBB commissioned anticensorship activist Bennett Haselton for an undisclosed sum to craft a user-friendly circumvention server.
Similar software already exists but without sufficient ease of use that it could achieve widespread international distribution.
The IBB hasn't figured out exactly how it will distribute the software, or how it will solve the chicken-and-egg conundrum of getting the word out to people who are prevented from hearing the IBB's message in the first place. One possible solution is to tap dissident expatriate communities that maintain ties to their homeland.
According to an unscientific survey conducted last year, the Chinese make up the second largest national group surfing the Web, after Americans.
The pairing of the U.S. government and Haselton--who is noted for opposing efforts in public libraries and schools to install filtering software on government-funded computers--makes something of an odd couple.
In fact, the IBB's research and development dollars could ultimately wind up undermining the U.S.-supported efforts to restrict Web surfing and the blocking software that's in use in other contexts.
What, for example, if the repressive regime turns out to be a curious teenager's parents?
"We're trying to get people to run circumventor software," the IBB's Berman said. "Once it's running, does 13-year-old Joey find it? We like to call our program a portal to democracy. Whether the same tools are used by teenagers here--it's difficult to try to put controls on that."
For his own part, Haselton cheerfully acknowledged the potential domestic application of his circumvention.
"It also apparently works to get around most blocking software proxies and client programs used in the U.S., although there are ways that blocking software companies could counteract it," according to Haselton. "But until they do implement the countermeasures and convince everybody to upgrade, it will work to defeat a lot of the home and school blocking software programs as well."