Last night in a small lower Manhattan co-working space, Internet evangelists convened to engage in the Open Internet Tools Project’s (OpenITP) “Techno-Activism Third Monday.” The participants differed in age, ethnicity, technical background, and gender. Researchers from Croatia, students from Denmark, professors from New York, and even a chemotherapy nurse attended, because she was “concerned about patient security.” While some were geekier than others, the one thing they had in common was an intense interest and concern with online surveillance.
The organization that hosted the event, OpenITP, is a New York-based project working to “improve and increase the distribution of open source anti-surveillance and anti-censorship tools.” Its goal is far-reaching — to make internet access freer and more universal — and it says it focuses on funding software development and education.
Last night’s event is a good example of OpenITP’s programming, featuring a presentation from a new anti-censorship software called Lantern. The event facilitated a way for anyone with even an indirect interest in protecting online privacy to come together, drink beer, and eat tacos, while learning and discussing burgeoning forms of anti-surveillance behavior. This included talk of softwares that prevent online censorship and forums for people to learn more about these issues. As of now, there are 12 cities worldwide participating in these monthly events.
Adam Fisk, a former lead engineer of Limewire, one of the early peer-to-peer file-sharing networks that got sued for copyright infringement, talked about Lantern, a free software he’s created for people to use where internet access is denied. The framework of Lantern, he says, relies on “peer to peer and trust networks to get around censors.” This means people living in regimes that monitor and/or cut off internet can connect with those with non-controlled access as a proxy to surf the Internet.
Fisk explained that his background at Limewire focused on the p2p aspect of the software, and not the music sharing. He is wholly uninterested in copyright. He saw his work at Limewire as “building networks to distribute information to the world.” Lantern, then, is a good extension of this goal as global online censorship becomes heightened.
For Fisk, Iran is a prime target for Lantern’s project. While the country has internet access, it filters websites that have access to the outside world, like Facebook, Twitter, or the New York Times. Lantern groups trusted networks — people who other users know are trustworthy and live in a non-censored internet landscape — to provide exit points by which those in censored regimes can channel access.
Fisk describes Lantern users as a network of friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and so on. It is not an anonymity tool like Tor; websites are still able to track physical locations and network monitors may be able determine the sites you are visiting; it is simply a way to bypass state-sanctioned filtration.
The project is still in its early stages with only about 200 beta testers trying out the software, although it has momentum given its funding, in part, by a large grant from the State Department. This, of course, caused a certain amount of eyebrow rising. Even Fisk himself remarked that in a perfect world Lantern would “prefer to not have the US funding,” given recent allegations about NSA and its online surveillance program.
He sees the next step as continuing building out the software, making it easier to use, and growing a network of trusted users. At the same time, as the project begins to scale it runs the risk of losing control over who is trusted. While Fisk is aware of this potential issue, his focus is on making an airtight anti-censorship product and working from there.
The event was short and the room anything but packed. Nevertheless, it did illustrate the diverse number of activist voices that are drawn to the issue. While some were excited about the advances and possibilities Lantern was making, others were skeptical that its framework required the use of Google Talk. These critics, who were predominately professors and concerned software developers, pointed to Google’s possible role in providing information to the NSA as somewhat disquieting.
But they were all there for a common cause and hopeful about its future. And there’s something to be said for that.