Tor, a competing online program that also permits users to avoid detection, has become a useful tool for drug trafficking, child prostitution and other criminal activity. It’s a problem that staff members at the Tor project acknowledge, but they say it is, in effect, a cost of doing business for an anti-surveillance tool.
“Criminals are early adopters of technology. As soon as the police learn to monitor one network, criminals find better ways to hide,” said Karen Reilly, development director for the Tor project.
“We are being asked to make false choices between victims,” Reilly said. “Because of someone who is being abused by a family member in the States, we are asked to shut down anonymity software, leaving the child who posts anti-regime comments on social media vulnerable in a country where rape in prison is officially sanctioned punishment.”
Internet freedom activists say part of the challenge in developing online circumvention tools is determining how much to spend now on helping users evade detection vs. how much to spend on more sophisticated projects for the future that could keep pace with censorship technology.
Much of the latter is done under the auspices of Radio Free Asia, in a program led by Dan Meredith, a 30-year-old former journalist and programmer. But his program has only $3.7 million to spend in the year ahead — down from $6.7 million last year.
Meredith said that the firewall in China is “actually thin as cheese paper” — at least until censors find new ways to block information. What Meredith wants to do is keep the Internet free for new users — by building “mesh” networks, retooling major sites to automatically dodge crude censorship efforts and more.
But he acknowledges the political sensitivities involved in the effort.
“How do I go about trying to increase more awareness and funding from Congress for Internet freedom without going against some huge political body, or something?” he said.
For Horowitz, the veteran of the Reagan administration, the issue boils down to ideology. Internet freedom, in his view, is the 21st century’s Cold War.
“We live in a world where walls of electrons are increasingly replacing stone and barbed wire as control mechanisms of dictatorships,” he said.