Emma’s July News and Views - Censorship and the Web
In his News and Views earlier in the month, Toby Thwaites of our Design team discussed whether the internet should be considered a basic human right. This caused much discussion at Futureheads HQ, and got me thinking about what it must be like to live in a country where internet access is censored or monitered, since we are so easily able to connect in the Western world. After reading up on the subject, I discovered TOR (‘the Onion Router’), a free downloadable software which directs internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of servers to conceal a user's location or usage. Data that normally runs openly through internet networks is encrypted in many layers (hence the referall to ‘Onion Routing’). It is then run through a succession of successive TOR relays, reducing the possibility of the original data being unscrambled or understood in transit.
TOR is not illegal, although it does allow for an ‘underground’ internet, or an internet ‘black market’. One of the most famous sites run on TOR is ‘Silk Road’, where users who have downloaded the software are able to purchase a variety of illegal drugs, using an online digital currency know as ‘Bit Coins’, which are also untraceable. According to this Wired article from April 2012, 8 suspects were arrested for their involvement in the site when undercover law enforcement agents infiltrated one of the forums on the site. Whether Silk Road has now been shut down or if a similar site has taken its place is unknown, due to the anonymous nature of TOR.
Despite facilitating illegal activity, TOR won a ‘Projects for Social Benefit’ at the Free Software Foundation Awards in 2010. In digitally repressive countries like Iran and China, TOR enables internet access which would otherwise be impossible. TOR also played a crucial role in the Arab Spring. When governments began blocking Social Media sites like twitter and Facebook which were being used to organise protests and spread awareness, TOR offered activists a way to circumvent the censorship, allowing them to tell the world about their most recent developments.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the number of people using TOR has skyrocketed, from 200,000 in 2010 to 500,000 in 2012. As a result, the use of surveillance technology to watch internet users and censor websites facilitated through Tor has also increased. In February 2012, the Iranian government partially blocked the encrypted network traffic being used through TOR, although the TOR project was quickly able to rectify this through offering more complex layers of encryption which allowed users to get back online.
As it’s so highly untraceable, it’s hard to know what really happens online through the use of the TOR project, and stories about it in the media are limited due to the levels of anonymity. It can't then be defined as an inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, since on the one hand it can be used against repressive regimes, but it also facilitates ‘black market’ activity. We have a number of opinions here at Futureheads, and we’d love to hear your thoughts too. Do you have any other examples of TOR related activity?