How Tor plans to grow the anonymous Internet

Freedom of speech online could get a big boost.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Jun 16, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 3:17 am CDT

The anonymous Internet is small. Too small, if you ask many activists, and it may need to grow 10, or even 50, times its current size, if its going to continue to support free speech around an increasingly digital world.

Tor, the largest anonymizing network ever built, fundamentally relies on just 2,000 volunteer routers to relay 99 percent of its encrypted data around the globe (about 4,000 MiB/s) in order to provide greater security to its 2 million users. Relays, which transports data from Tor users to the Internet, are the pillars on which the Tor network is built.

In a hopeful five-year forecast, Tor chief architect Nick Mathewson recently described a network of 20,000 nodes that could potentially support over 20 million users, with the possibility for a network of 100,000 nodes to support more than 100 million anonymous users.

If that sounds like a lot, remember that Twitter has over 200 million users, Sina Weibo has over 500 million, and Facebook sits atop the stack with north of 1.28 billion users.

What if just a fraction of that number sought out the truly free and anonymous Internet speech that only software like Tor and I2P can provide?

In that case, the developers of an open source tool like Tor would have to figure out how to strongly and securely grow network capacity to offer digital freedom and privacy in all the newly connected corners of the world.

Virgil Griffith, a 31-year-old American developer, is one of many activists dedicated to growing a bigger anonymous Internet.

“Fundamentally, my goal is for there to be more and faster Tor relays,” Griffith, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Caltech, told the Daily Dot. “As a scientist, I am most persuaded by quantitative, empirical data. So I’ve been exploring the social sciences literature for how to best incentivize the ‘volunteer labor’ of running Tor relays.”

In 2008, Griffith worked with Aaron Swartz to design the Tor2web proxy, a tool that allows anyone to browse the anonymous Internet, in an effort to raise broader awareness by making Tor’s famous hidden services available to everyone.

This year, armed with substantial peer-reviewed research, Griffith went after five key motivations for volunteer labor: “Pure altruism, financial incentives, warm glow, self-image, and reputation.”

A recent project by the Electronic Frontier Foundation relies mostly on pure altruism. The Tor Challenge offers small prizes—stickers and t-shirts—in return for running a relay that crucially helps to grow the network. So far, the effort has resulted in 675 new relays in eight days, a total network size increase of about 15 percent.

Not bad at all. The ultimate goal, however, is much bigger than that.

After pure altruism, volunteer motivations become more interesting. Impure altruism, in which the giver actually receives something in return, drives many if not most volunteers.

The most obvious return is money. Griffith is currently leading two projects based on financial incentives: Toroken and TorCoin aim to grow the Tor network and make it self-sustaining by paying valuable digital currency to relay operators who provide huge bandwidth to the anonymity network.

“If you had this kind of high speed, commercially viable routing network that gave people anonymity,” Toroken developer Robert David told the Daily Dot in April, “think of what that could do for prevention of censorship and freedom of information.”

If money isn’t a sufficient catalyst—and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often not—a volunteer may be driven to give in pursuit of what social scientists call a “warm glow,” or the positive emotional feeling one gets from helping others. Research has shown that reward centers in the brain become active due to charity, meaning that a physiological reward—a small slice of euphoria—is on the table if only organizers can figure out how to hand it to their volunteers.

On top of that, a positive self-image and a good reputation can move even more to volunteer.

Griffith’s newest project is designed specifically to harness that warm glow, positive self-image, and boost the reputation of the volunteers who need it in exchange for growing the Tor network.

Known as Pillars, the newly proposed project is meant to build “a single, publicly viewable page for each relay operator which summarizes her total contributions to the Tor network,” Griffith explained. “Being listed as a pillar is an outward-facing social signal that you make the Internet a better place.”

Pillars proposes to give each Tor relay operator her own profile page—think of a social media page like Facebook or Twitter—under the subdomain.

Each profile would show important information like relay age, PGP fingerprint, and contact info but also give special recognition for operating exit or bridge relays that bring potentially increased technical and legal challenges. The amount of bandwidth a relay operator offers can be measured and worn proudly on these pages so that Tor users could recognize and appreciate how the sum total bandwidth she has given to the network.

It’s easy to imagine a Bitcoin address or anonymous commenting system adding even more dimensions to a Pillars profile.

Pillars, which operators could easily opt-out from, has no significant privacy consequences for Tor users or relay operators. Virtually all of this information is already supplied to the network and is publicly available right now at this Web page.

Griffith says that it would take about $10,000 to get “a draft of Pillars online,” adding that the project could be done by the end of 2014. He’s volunteered to fund the entire project himself.

Growing the number of relays in the Tor network is one way to build up the anonymous Internet. Of course, you’ll want to have easy-to-use tools that anyone can operate once they arrive. To that end, other developers are currently working on tools like a Tor anonymous instant messenger, a Tor-fueled mobile operating system, and point-and-click anonymous publishing so that free speech continues to grow with the ongoing digital revolution.

Then again, Tor developers have to be careful what they wish for. A network of 20,000 or 100,000 nodes would bring a wide range of new technical challenges to the table. Scaling to that size might require years of development work, Tor’s Nick Mathewson recently wrote, to adapt a network to the new reality that every user no longer can know about, or stay connected to, every node.

But big growth would also mean a faster, more pleasant-to-use anonymous network that could attract millions more users around the world. That’s not a bad trade off at all.

“There are definitely new problems that come with having 20-100k nodes, and these problems would be awesome to have,” Griffith told the Daily Dot in an email. “I aim to give Nick Matthewson plenty of work to do.”

Photo via e-magic/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 16, 2014, 11:44 am CDT