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Tor developers want to decrease dependence on U.S. government funding

They're weaning themselves.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Mar 8, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 8:56 am CDT

Developers behind the Tor anonymity service are aiming to fundamentally transform how the project is financed by changing where the millions of dollars used annually to sustain the network and software its built on comes from.

In 2013, Tor received more than $1.8 million from the U.S. government, about 75 percent of the $2.4 million in total annual expenses, according to their latest publicly available tax returns.

In response to increasing public and internal dialogue, the organization will be making a sustained push to increase funds from all other sources in order to decrease their dependence on the U.S. government.

Developers recently discussed the push to diversify funding at Tor’s biannual meeting in Spain, including setting a goal of 50 percent non-U.S. government funding by 2016.

Tor developers at the meeting also brought up the possibility of lobbying foreign governments within, for instance, the European Union.

However, increasing non-governmental funding is a major priority.

Individual donations rose significantly in the last year and Tor plans on soliciting them much more aggressively in 2015. Every new download of Tor—there were 120 million in 2014—will be asked to donate to the project, a change expected to take place in the near future.

“Small donations, individual wealthy donors [are] the best kind of money,” one developer said, according to development director Karen Reilly. “But we still need to tell them what we did.”

Reilly is likely referring to the difficulty inherent in selling donors on the success stories of software meant to enable secrecy. In other words, when Tor works as intended, most of us don’t know it’s working at all.

After months of planning, Tor will be launching its first-ever crowdfunding campaign in May of this year. Last year, Tor executive director Andrew Lewman told the Daily Dot that crowdfunding was being strongly considered in order to support Hidden Services, the network’s anonymous websites, after years of having next to no developer support but a large and vocal user base.

There’s long been an important discussion about the funding of open source security tools, but it blew up in the open in July 2014, when conspiracy theorists were treated to a report investigating Tor’s funding from Pando Daily.

The conspiracy theory goes like this: Tor is meant to keep you anonymous on the Internet but it’s funded in large part by the U.S. government, whose cybersurveillance capabilities are insatiable. Therefore, Tor is probably “a ruse, a sham, a honey pot” meant to spotlight anyone who wants to hide.

The theory has problems, critics say. 

First of all, you can review every line of Tor’s code to see exactly what it does. The program is open source. No one has ever found backdoors into Tor nor has anyone disputed the fundamental design of the network: The more users, including governments, the better anyone on earth can hide within Tor.

Second, the U.S. government contains multitudes that act in contradiction to each other every single day. All of the National Security Agency’s goals are not necessarily in line with every bureau of the State Department’s aims.

Third, Tor prominently displays its financial records and has for years, so it’s been a strange sight to see them accused of a cover up.

Still, there is actually wide agreement among both Tor insiders and outsiders that discussing Tor’s government funding is an important next step for the organization.

Tor developer and spokesman Jacob Appelbaum is one of several people who have argued that weaning Tor off of dependence on federal funding ought to be a priority. Now, they’re trying to do just that.

Tor aims to release their latest budget in March.

Photo via Jason JRH/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 8, 2015, 11:00 am CDT