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Google disallows domain fronting, evading censorship becomes difficult

A recent change in Google’s network built has disallowed the usage of the platform for domain fronting, much to the discomfort of many. The change was first spotted by Tor developers on April 13th.

What is domain fronting?

Domain fronting is a method access blocked websites on the internet, by using credible websites (such as Google) to host those web addresses, which results in masking of the final end point. The process is used by users and companies to hide the end page they access, and thus evade state censorship.

According to advocacy group Access Now, close to a dozen human rights-enabling technologies which rely on domain fronting through Google.  These programs and services include: Signal, Psiphon, Lantern, Telex (in development), Tor, obsf4, ScrambleSuite, meek, meek_lite, Collateral Freedom, and GreatFire FreeBrowser.

The technique is also a popular tool with security researchers running penetration tests.

When The Verge reached out to Google for a comment on recent changes, a representative said, “Domain fronting has never been a supported feature at Google.” The rep representative added that it worked till now because of a quirk of their software stack. “We’re constantly evolving our network, and as part of a planned software update, domain fronting no longer works. We don’t have any plans to offer it as a feature,” The Verge quoted the spokesperson as saying.

Censorship vs access

Domain fronting has been crucial to access blocked internet portals/services in regions where state censorship is rampant. In fact, the use of domain fronting by Telegram (sort of) prevented the state’s information department from blocking its original servers and addresses because it was using Google and Amazon as its front domains. Unable to curb the encrypted messaging service, the authorities even ordered blocking of 16 million IP addresses in the country, blocking off multiple companies instead. Notably, Telegram had moved to domain fronting in December 2017 when Iranian government tried to censor the app during protests in that country.

Many other domains still allow for domain hosting, but having Google support it was crucial, as many note, because governments would be vary of blocking all of the tech giant’s services. While critics have said that the practice is used for illegal activities on the internet as well, supporters of domain fronting argue that it is the route to internet freedom for many.

“Google knows this block will levy immediate, adverse effects on human rights defenders, journalists, and others struggling to reach the open internet,” Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now, said in a blog post.

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