The groundbreaking fight to strengthen Internet privacy in public libraries

This week, state legislators in New Hampshire are bracing for a fight over a groundbreaking new bill that gives public libraries explicit permission to run powerful privacy software like Tor, a network that gives its users anonymity on the Internet.

Three weeks after passing committee by a 9-6 vote, the bill is expected to hit the floor of the New Hampshire House of Representatives on Wednesday or Thursday, alongside hundreds of bills considered in two days of rapid-fire sessions by the legislative body.

The vote is the climax of a conflict that began last year, when, after being contacted by the Department of Homeland Security and local police over concerns about the network making police work more difficult, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, shut down its Tor relay in order to discuss the issue with the library’s leadership.

“Librarians have been fighting this fight for over 100 years.”

The shut down made headlines, and a week later, the library’s board of trustees voted to restore the machine. The library has since upgraded its operation and now runs a Tor “exit node,” an even more valuable resource for the network and one of only about 1,000 such machines around the globe.

Tor software encrypts user traffic and routes it through three of more than 7,000 nodes—special Tor-connected computers—that make up the Tor network. An exit node, like the one operated by the Kilton library, is the point at which user traffic exits the Tor network and connects to the open Internet. One of the most popular privacy tools available, Tor is used by activists, journalists, and criminals alike—although media and law enforcement generally focus on the more nefarious elements operating on the network.

The library hosted a Tor relay because of the work of Alison Macrina, founder of the Library Freedom Project, who has been promoting the use of privacy software in libraries around the world. Macrina offered expert feedback and testimony for the new bill. A representative of the Tor Project, which maintains the Tor network and software, said the organization is following the bill with interest.

The opposition to the bill, which includes the leadership of the Republican-controlled House, list two key points against the proposal.

“This bill is unnecessary as libraries are not prohibited from running any software they deem appropriate for their operation,” Rep. Jim Belanger told the Daily Dot. “And this bill mentions specific software, which favors one private enterprise over others and does not belong in a N.H. Statute.”

The 200-word bill, HB 1508, which has received support from the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, specifically mentions Tor as an example of “cryptographic privacy software.” It does not force or limit libraries to use any program.

The New Hampshire House is controlled by Republicans, and the leaders of both sides of this fight hail from the GOP. But the divide within the state’s Republican Party can get acrimonious.

The bill’s sponsor, libertarian Rep. Keith Ammon, called the party’s leadership “squishy, statist, big government” Republicans.

“[They] think the government should spy on us, I guess,” Ammon said. Tor has seen an extended spike in use and public interest since 2013, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked thousands of National Security Agency documents detailing extensive domestic and international surveillance by the U.S. government.

Tor was first developed by the U.S. Navy and today is mostly funded by the federal government, which provides the Tor Project over $2 million annually with the stated goal of supporting democracy and human rights around the globe.

The bill is meant to “provide backup” to libraries in case Homeland Security “gets involved” again. For their part, a Homeland Security official told Ars Technica the agency has no opinion on the library’s Tor node and the department “will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity.”

In the legislative record, Ammon explained that this bill is a statement in support of privacy software in public libraries.

“Internet privacy in the digital age is fundamental to the sacred right of free speech; this includes the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others, including governments, corporations, or bad actors,” Ammon argued.

“This bill does not mandate that libraries run privacy software but simply clarifies their ability to do so,” he added. “Much of the software is free and open-source and costs pennies a month to run if it costs anything.”

If it became law, the bill would have no legal consequences whatsoever.

“It’s about using privacy-enhancing technology like Tor, affirming the right to use it,” Macrina told the Daily Dot last month. “I think that no matter what happens, whether this passes or not, it’s a pretty important step in recognizing these things are really important, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies are threatening our right to use them.”

“Internet privacy in the digital age is fundamental to the sacred right of free speech.”

“Librarians have been working on privacy and intellectual-freedom issues for a long time,” Chuck McAndrew, the Kilton Public Library’s information technology librarian, told the Daily Dot. “It has been the American Librarian Association’s code of ethics for over a hundred years that we protect our patron’s privacy and their right to intellectual freedom. It’s just an extension of work we were already doing. Librarians have been fighting this fight for over 100 years.”

McAndrew says the case has sparked interest from other libraries around the state in addition to the dozen or so libraries around the world the Library Freedom Project is currently working with.

“I hope this legislation jump starts the conversation,” Ammon said. “I hope that more libraries around the state are encouraged to run Tor, especially.” 

Ammon sees the bill as one puzzle piece promoting a broader libertarian agenda across the state. Earlier this year, the self-described technologist co-sponsored a bill that would have allowed the state government to accept taxes and fees in Bitcoin. It was defeated 264-74 in the House.

Rep. Patricia Cornell, who voted against the library bill while it was in committee, said it would be “inexpedient to legislate.”

“Libraries already have this authority and are adamant about protecting patron privacy, making this law unnecessary,” she said.

The two sides will meet within the next 48 hours, when Ammon will try to win enough votes to push the bill onward toward the state senate.

“There will,” he said, “be a floor fight.”

Photo via Terry Ross/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.