Censor-busting PirateBrowser works -- within limits

Recently released Firefox-based browser is supposed to circumvent censorship and blockades, but performance is spotty

In honor of its totally unexpected 10th birthday last week -- whoever would've thought the Pirate Bay would live that long? -- the infamous torrent-cataloging organization released a new browser. PirateBrowser is a customized version of Firefox specifically designed to "circumvent censorship and blockades, and make [sites like The Pirate Bay] instantly available and accessible." But my tests show that -- at least in one part of Asia -- the browser's behavior is spotty.

If you try to access The Pirate Bay site in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands or Italy, your ISP probably blocks it; your browser says the site has timed out or you get a warning message. If you go online in other countries -- Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Singapore, Romania, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, and many others -- your government may block access to specific websites, including Pirate Bay, for a wide variety of reasons. Sites that are blocked today may become unblocked tomorrow -- in many cases for reasons that elude most citizens (or indeed anyone with an IQ above room temperature).

The United Kingdom has seen exceptional subzero legislation, with blocks now in place for the Pirate Bay and other torrent cataloging sites such as EZTV, 1337X, Heet, fenopy, IsoHunt, KAT/KickassTorrents, BitSnoop, Torrent Crazy, Movie4k, Monova, and Torrentz. PirateBrowser has bookmarks for each of them. Of course, anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of proxy servers or VPNs can bypass the blocks. But PirateBrowser makes finagling with your server settings, suffering with a slow VPN, and/or paying for a fast VPN, unnecessary. At least, that's the theory.

While I don't expect the U.S. government to invest in PirateBrowser any time soon, the feds have their own censor-busting programs under way, pursuing a similar goal, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

TorrentFreak reports that the Pirate Bay had more than 100,000 downloads of PirateBrowser 0.6b in its first three days:

While The Pirate Bay anticipated some interest it never expected PirateBrowser to generate this many downloads. "I didn't think it would catch on so fast," The Pirate Bay's Winston tells TorrentFreak. "I guess people want to see the websites their governments and courts are trying to hide from them." To cope with the massive demand The Pirate Bay had to upgrade the connection for the download link. Even after three days PirateBrowser is still averaging well above a thousand downloads per hour.

The story continues with an important admonition:

"It's not providing anonymity and it's not secure to hide your identity. PirateBrowser is only supposed to circumvent censoring and website blocking. If we made the browser fully anonymous it would only slow down browsing," Winston explains.

That means PirateBrowser won't do anything to protect you from the NSA, Google (or Microsoft), or GPS tracking. You're not anonymous when you run it. But PirateBrowser runs Firefox in Private browsing mode, and it replaces Google with defaultsear.ch as the default search provider. The browser runs as a stand-alone EXE, no installer necessary.

I decided to put PirateBrowser to the test and see if it could break through the notorious government-mandated Internet censorship in Thailand, where I reside. I'm sorry to report that, at least in one corner of Asia, PirateBrowser doesn't work all the time.

While attempting to access several NSFW websites -- ones that would be considered R-rated in the United States, I would guess -- and politically sensitive sites using PirateBrowser, I bumped up against the Thai government's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology's vetting site (mict.co.th), and timed out. Repeated attempts led to the same conclusion. Other sites worked in other browsers.

When I tried the same sites 15 minutes later, PirateBrowser got through.

It isn't clear if the time delay was triggered by the government blacklisting site or if PirateBrowser needed more time to get its Tor act together. But it is clear that, at least in the first few minutes, the Thai government's censorship held against PirateBrowser's busting -- a fact that makes me wonder if the Thai government is tracking everything going through PirateBrowser in Thailand.

This story, "Censor-busting PirateBrowser works -- within limits," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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