(Anonabox)

Update, Oct. 17: Kickstarter has indeed suspended the Anonabox project and refunded donations to backers. In an email sent to backers Friday afternoon from Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team, the company said “a review of the project uncovered evidence that it broke Kickstarter’s rules,” including one or more of the following: offering purchased items and claiming to have made them; presenting someone else’s work as one’s own; and misrepresenting relevant facts about the project.

The original post is below.

When it launched on Oct. 11, the Anonabox was hailed as a revolution in Internet browsing, a cheap, easy-to-use tool that could help users evade everything from NSA snooping to web censorship.

Four days later, the highly hyped gadget is looking like something far different: One of the most dramatic, and most high-profile, Kickstarter fails of all time.

Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that previously brought you Pebble, Oculus Rift and one really tricked-out cooler, is no stranger to this type of controversy, of course. Whenever you donate money to an unproven idea, there’s some inherent acceptance of risk — which is why the site indemnifies itself against lawsuits or other damages, right in its terms of service.

But the Anonabox, which has raised more than $600,000 from 9,000 people since going online four days ago, is a curious case. Most Kickstarter controversies erupt after the fact, when a project has been funded and the creator fails to deliver. (Earlier this year, in fact, Washington’s attorney general sued a Tennessee-based project that did just that.)

But funders began to notice problems with the Anonabox — a tiny, affordable Internet router that anonymizes your online activity — long before that point. There were glaring discrepancies, they noted, between creator August Germar’s original description of the Anonabox and actual pictures of the device online. Germar claimed that he had designed the hardware from scratch, when, in fact, the primary components were bought almost off-the-shelf from China.


How Anonabox works (Anonabox)

He had also claimed, on Kickstarter and in interviews, that the hardware and software in Anonabox were both “open-source,” meaning that there’s no copyright on them — anyone can tinker with the code and the circuit board, a critical feature to wide swaths of the geek and development communities. But since Germar didn’t make the hardware himself, it likely isn’t open-source. And while the software may very well be, Germar hasn’t yet released it … and many critics, citing details Germar has previously leaked in interviews, don’t believe it will be secure.

In other words, Anonabox may indeed anonymize your web traffic — but it won’t necessarily do it any differently from other, similar gadgets already on the market, and it might not do it to the degree it promises. Which is, presumably, what backers were paying for.

Germer did not respond to e-mails or phone calls from the Post, though he did admit to Wired’s Andy Greenberg, who had previously reported on the device, that neither Anonabox’s case nor its circuit board were custom-built by the project’s developers — contrary what he had told Greenberg and others previously.

Kickstarter also declined to comment on the project or whether those misrepresentations violated its rules. But according to the site’s Trust and Safety policy, Kickstarter “doesn’t evaluate a project’s claims, resolve disputes, or offer refunds — backers decide what’s worth funding and what’s not.”

It would appear that some backers, at least, are changing their minds on Anonabox: Since 9 a.m. today, donors have withdrawn roughly $14,000 in pledges, or 2 percent of the project’s earnings to that point. (Under Kickstarter policy, backers can change or cancel their donations at any time before a project closes, with some exceptions if they cancel in the last 24 hours.) According to Anonabox’s Kickstarter page, more than 200 people have contributed at least $250 to the project, and a handful have donated considerably more.

“Just evasive response after evasive response,” one backer complained on Reddit. “I’m a higher tier backer but now I’m going to contact KS and my payment method if there aren’t some serious efforts at transparency by tomorrow.”

It’s unclear, however, if there’s anything Kickstarter can — or will — do. Anonabox isn’t an outright scam, after all, and Kickstarter’s terms are vague on anything less than that. They tell project creators not to do anything “deceptive or fraudulent,” but they don’t specify where the threshold for deception or fraud is. The site also directs creators to “complete the project and fulfill each reward” as promised, but makes clear that the site won’t enforce that direction, and won’t intervene in any conflicts arising from it. In other words, the only thing backing a creator’s word, besides the distant possibility someone would sue them, is trust.


A screenshot from Kickstarter’s “Trust and Safety” policies. (Kickstarter)

Critics and cynics have attacked that policy before: “Dream-maker or promise-breaker?” read one typical headline on Forbes, which went on to point out the the model’s many inherent risks. Over on Reddit, some (anti?)enterprising soul has dedicated an entire forum to skewering senseless, misleading or fraudulent Kickstarters; it has more than 18,000 subscribers, almost as many as the pro-Kickstarter subreddit.

But in many ways, Kickstarter’s trust policy is fundamentally identical to Reddit’s: Both sites conspicuously step out of the equation, refusing to play referee and insisting that users take responsibility themselves. Kickstarter won’t intervene when backers are unhappy about a project; Reddit washes its hands when users post controversial things that the public, as a whole, doesn’t like.

Does it work? Not always. But in this instance, at least, both communities seem to be proving their ultimate, user-powered worth: On Reddit, the hivemind worked quickly, and ruthlessly, to point out the discrepancies and inaccuracies in Anonabox’s marketing materials. And on Kickstarter, skeptical backers are withdrawing their trust … and with it, their donations.

When I began writing this post, Anonbox had earned more than $614,000. As of this sentence, it’s down to $598,496.

“It’s damn important to let people know that something smells rotten,” wrote one Kickstarter “backer,” who contributed a dollar to Anonabox solely to declaim it on the comments’ page. “I can’t understand how anyone can look at the evidence and think otherwise … I have to call BS.”