Could Email Provide Access to Censored Online Content?

by Tracy Knauer •

Here’s a creative way to beat online censorship: transmit banned information via email. That’s what a little-known (and now defunct) project called Feed over Email tried to do. It never got off the ground, but it’s notable all the same for its creative approach to online privacy, which did not require VPNs or Tor.

Feed over Email, or FOE, described itself as “a new anti-censorship tool that allows users in censored countries to receive news updates.” It launched in 2010 and produced an alpha release before development ceased.

The tool’s strategy for circumventing online censorship was to send RSS news feeds via email. That way, people whose access to news sites was blocked could read news through their email accounts.

As the project noted, that strategy provided a way for “users to receive RSS feeds from foreign websites without the need to find a working proxy server or install any proxy software.”

FOE was not designed to allow people to access all types of censored content. Apps or websites whose content could not be packaged into an RSS feed would not have been transmitted over email.

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Still, the United States government saw enough value in the tool to test it from several locations in China. It found that it “performed well in all tests,” although it noted that the service depended on users having email accounts based outside of China, which was not ideal.

It’s unclear why development of FOE stopped after the release of the alpha version, but it seems unlikely that a production-quality version of the tool will ever see the light of day. Still, FOE was an interesting idea, which could potentially help inspire creative solutions for circumventing online censorship in countries like China without requiring a VPN or Tor.

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