Users flock to Japan student's firewall-busting thesis project

'VPN Gate,' designed by PhD student Daiyuu Nobori to circumvent government firewalls, has drawn 77,000 users in less than a week

If you're not sure about the purpose behind Daiyuu Nobori's online thesis project, perhaps the large picture of the collapse of the Berlin Wall will help.

Nobori created VPN Gate to help individuals in countries that restrict Internet use to beat government firewalls. The service encourages members of the public to set up VPN (virtual private network) servers and offer free connections to individual users, aiming to make the technology more accessible.

"Today's VPN software is very complex. They are not easy to use. Some VPN services around the world are expensive for people in other parts of the world," Nobori said in an interview with IDG News Service.

His service maintains a public, real-time list of freely available VPN servers for users to choose from. It also offers downloadable server software to run the VPN, and a client that greatly simplifies the process of finding and connecting to one of the free servers, for the less technically inclined.

The 28 year-old doctoral student at Tsukuba University, about 30 miles northeast of Tokyo, wasn't sure what the reaction would be when he launched last Friday. He did little to advertise it outside of the home page and a few mentions on tech forums.

Five days later, the service has drawn 77,000 users and served nearly 4 terabytes of data.

"There are a lot of users from around the world, so I'm very happy," he said, but "the large amount of data transfer charges are a problem. This is coming from my credit card."

Nobori had originally planned to host the service on his university's servers, but they have been down recently so he switched it to the Windows Azure cloud platform. He has spent about US$9,000 keeping it up so far, and will move it back to the university as soon as he can. He also operates his own VPN company, income from which has helped with expenses.

The service is based on "SoftEther," open-source VPN software he built. He says most of it will be released as open source in the next few months. He said he plans to keep certain small portions related to custom protocols private, for security reasons.

He was motivated to create VPN Gate when he learned about the firewalls imposed on people living in Middle East countries such as Egypt and Libya. The Web page is currently offered in English, Chinese and his native Japanese, but he says that is more based on the number of language speakers worldwide than any political feelings about a particular country.

"I'm an engineer, I don't have any interest in politics," he said. "If people somewhere want to study and can't use services like Wikipedia or Google, this is a big problem. Wikipedia has political articles, but also articles about science and other topics."

The service's public access logs show that the vast majority of connections are coming from China. He had friends at his university help him translate his materials into Chinese, but they asked that he not credit them by name for fear of repercussions.

Nobori said that while few people in countries like Japan feel threatened by government firewalls, he remains concerned. In Japan, police have publicized a plan to block access to a genre of sites that give advice on how to kill yourself, to cut down on the country's high suicide rate.

"It is probably acceptable to block the suicide sites, but you don't know what happens next. There is always a chance it will expand."

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Jay Alabaster

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