Great Wall of China

How you can help demolish the Great Firewall of China from the comfort of your living room

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Online censorship is like the weather, everyone complains, but no one ever does anything about it

Sure, that’s a gross over-generalization—lots of people around the world fight tirelessly every single day to combat the efforts of repressive governments that control the flow of digital information. Yet, for the vast majority of average Internet users, it seems like there’s little they can do to help a young person in China learn about what happened in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989.

This helplessness during a time when then over a quarter of the world’s population is blocked by their governments from having unfettered access to all of the information on the Internet is precisely what the creators of Lantern want to remedy.

Lantern is a piece of software that allows people in countries without Internet restrictions let someone in a place lacking those same kinds of freedoms see what the Internet looks like through their browsers.  

The program was created late last year by Adam Fisk, a former engineer at the pioneering file sharing service Limewire, which was shut down by a federal judge in 2010. Fisk used his background in developing peer-to-peer technology to create a decentralized system of combatting censorship that governments are cannot block effectively.

“Up until now, censors have had the upper hand in being able to block these tools. Lantern uses peer-to-peer to get around that,” Fisk explained. “Individuals in uncensored regions can download and install it really easily and become these instant access points. It’s similar to a Facebook Like button in some sense, but actually having a tangible effect and giving access to people to need it.”

Lantern, which launched late last year, currently has around 25,000 users—mostly in China, but with a few thousand in Iran. Fisk expects that number to grow significantly as the company makes its first big push to increase the number of users in the “uncensored” world.

“It’s basically been spreading through word of mouth,” he noted. “In these [repressive] countries, if something works, people will find out about it and use it. Right now, in both China and Iran, really nothing else is working.”

If you download Lantern in an uncensored region, you can connect with someone in a censored region, who can then access whatever content they want through you. What makes the system so unique is that it operates on the basis of trust.

In order to use Lantern, you have to sign in with Google, and then information about your computer trickles through your network of real-world friends who are also using Lantern.

“In order for a censor to discover the IP addresses of your computer, they’d have to somehow convince you that they’re a friend,” Fisk explained. “It uses these real-world trust relationships to protect the IP addresses of these proxies because when you run Lantern in the uncensored world, you are a proxy.”

This gif shows how connections are formed across the globe:

Lantern connection map

Even if you don’t know anyone living in Iran but still want to help LGBT youth in the country watch “It Gets Better” videos on YouTube, Lantern allows these connections to string together, one after another, to create a situation where a long lines of trusted connections act as bridges for online content.

However, that doesn’t mean a single government censor who downloads the software would be able to bring down the whole system. Fisk attests that the network is able to detect attempts to block information from passing through and seamlessly route around them. “Even in just loading a single web page, Lantern may load all the different files on it from different peers all around the world.”

Through a process called consistent routing, the amount of information any single Lantern user can learn about other users is limited to a small subset, making infiltration significantly more difficult.

Fisk knows that Lantern has to be careful because there have already been attempts by the Chinese government to prevent its citizens from using Lantern. Direct downloads of the program are already blocked. Most Chinese users have obtained the program through virtual private networks that allow people to use the web while severely limiting the information they give out about themselves, or by having the program emailed to them directly.

Last November, an Iranian satellite TV station reached out to do a story about Lantern. At that point, Lantern was still invite-only, but the station asked Fisk if he would make it so viewers of the show could immediately download it without having to have any special personal connections to current users. Fisk acquiesced and began allowing direct downloads to access a special “untrusted” portion of the Lantern network. Iranians began downloading the program en masse almost immediately and, soon after, people in China followed suit with nearly 20,000 people using the program in just a few weeks.

This activity attracted the attention of the Chinese government, which realized that traffic from Lantern looked a little different than other web traffic and managed to block its citizens’ access to the network. That blockage was only temporary, as Fisk’s team quickly altered Lantern’s traffic signature, making it considerably more difficult to detect.

Disguising Lantern’s traffic to look like other, unassuming types of traffic that censoring governments don’t block is actually a key part of its strategy. Lantern partners with other companies sympathetic to its mission to hide its traffic inside theirs.

Much like Tor, a tool that allows its users to (probably) surf the web with complete anonymously, Lantern is largely funded by the U.S. State Department. This funding arrangement has led to some fears that the NSA may have used that leverage to insert backdoors into the system.

“I think those concerns are definitely reasonable,” Fisk admitted. “But we’re working with people in the Department of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. These are men and women who are dedicated to the spread of…[free information] around the world…In my experience, the people we work with at the State Department are very different than the people across the river at the NSA in their agendas and their beliefs.”

He insisted that the project’s government backers have been very hands-off and, since the project is open source, anyone could go in and inspect the code themselves to see how it works and check for any backdoors that may have been put in place by government intelligence agents.

Lantern is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.

H/T Fight for the Future | Photo by Jakub Halun/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)