Anti-censorship app Lantern wants to become the SETI@home of free speech

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Facebook? Blocked. YouTube? Blocked. Twitter? Definitely blocked. Countries like China and Iran have been trying to control the flow of online information for years. Now, there’s an app that wants to take a page from the playbook of crowdsourced computing projects like SETI and poke holes in China’s so-called great firewall and other censorship efforts.

Lantern, as the project is called, is offering users in countries with internet censorship a proxy that unblocks social networks, news sites and political blogs. People in China and elsewhere have been using commercial proxies for years, resulting in a game of whack-a-mole, where censors would simply block access to the IP address of a proxy, forcing users to move on to the next available service.

Lantern wants to solve this issue through a P2P architecture: Users in censored countries don’t connect to a central server with an easily recognizable IP address, but instead route their website requests through a computer run by a volunteer in the U.S. or elsewhere. Lantern is a simple app available for Windows, OS X and Linux. Upon running it for the first time, users indicate whether they want to give access or get access to censored sites. And once it runs, the main UI is actually a data visualization that shows usage of the app around the world in real-time.

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Lantern started out with a network of trust, which means that a user in a censored country could only connect to the proxy of a user he knew, or someone who is a friend of a friend or belonged to an extended circle of friends. More recently, Lantern has also begun to offer cloud-hosted servers help people without trusted relays, and the project is now moving towards an architecture where anyone willing to give access is added to a pool of users that will help users in censored countries to get access to blocked sites.

Lantern was also invite-only until just a few weeks ago, but is now starting to open up and promote the idea of a collaborative network of peers that defeat censorship together. I recently met Adam Fisk, founder and president of Brave New Software, the non-profit behind Lantern, in Los Angeles. Fisk told me that one of the inspirations for Lantern was SETI@home, the popular distributed computing project that uses spare processing capacity on computers of volunteers around the world to find intelligent life in space — except that with Lantern, you’re not looking for Aliens, but helping to defeat internet censorship.

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The other inspiration for Lantern was LimeWire, the file-sharing application that Fisk worked on after college. At LimeWire, Fisk helped building one of the most popular P2P clients of its time, which at some point had 80 million active users, generating five billion search requests every month. One of the lessons that Fisk took away from LimeWire was that each user of a distributed network only needs to contribute a small amount of resources to have a huge impact around the world.

Like satellite TV in Iran

Lantern isn’t the only project looking to circumvent censorship, and getting access to sites like Facebook and Twitter isn’t the only issue citizens have in regimes that censor the internet. Surveillance is also a huge problem, and Lantern is not a tool to achieve anonymity. Any connection that is routed through a Lantern proxy is encrypted, but the software can’t protect against sites tracking their users, or even more complex internet surveillance schemes, like the ones that were revealed through the Edward Snowden leaks.

But Lantern also doesn’t bill itself as an anti-surveillance tool, and it’s not targeting dissidents, but ordinary citizens looking for unfiltered information. Said Fisk:

“In practice running a circumvention tool is similar in Iran to putting a satellite dish on your roof. Both are illegal, but the skyline of Tehran has satellite dishes as far as the eye can see. A lot of those people also use circumvention tools if and when they can get them to work. Lantern is similar to that dish in that it’s focused on accessing content.”

From an app to a movement

Work on Lantern began more than three years ago, and getting the software to a public launch has been a long journey, which involved switching the underlying technology from SIP to a subset of WebRTC, and more recently moving away from Java and towards code written in Go.

In those last three years, Lantern has been tested by more than 25,000 users, mostly located in Iran and China. And when the South China Morning Post wrote about Lantern late last year, censors immediately started to pay attention and blocked at least some users from using Lantern. However, Fisk told me that Lantern’s new architecture can withstand such attempts by combining cloud infrastructure with P2P, but he said that the app is still in an experimental stage, and that his team is looking for feedback from users to improve Lantern.

One other challenge for Lantern has been to secure funding. The project has been funded by the U.S. State Department, but it also depends on contributions from individual donors. And with little visibility in countries without internet censorship, fundraising efforts like an ongoing Indiegogo campaign have yet to take off.

Fisk told me that his group is now thinking about what else it can offer users in the U.S. and elsewhere. One idea has already made it into the prototype stage: A physical lantern that combines an LED lamp with a Raspberry Pi computer that runs the actual proxy software. Every time a user in a censored country accesses a website through that proxy, the lantern lights up.

These physical lanterns could one day help to raise more funds — but raising awareness may be even more important to turn Lantern from an app capable of circumventing censorship into one that does so on a massive scale. In a recent TEDx talk, Fisk put it this way:

“We are now shifting from building Lantern, the software, to building Lantern, the movement.”

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