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A tool for creating an “unbreakable” internet under oppressive, censoring regimes
Nov 21, 2022

A tool for creating an “unbreakable” internet under oppressive, censoring regimes

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A developer with the nonprofit Lantern says creating an internet that resists authoritarian control warrants a collaborative effort by the global tech community.

It may be called the World Wide Web, but in some parts of the world, big chunks of the web are blocked or censored.

One nonprofit designed an app to get around that censorship called Lantern. The organization says its user base in Iran has grown about 400% since the start of protests there two months ago and that as much as 13% of Iranian internet capacity is running through the app.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with one of Lantern’s developers. Because of his work in countries with oppressive regimes, we’re using the pseudonym “Lucas” to protect his identity. He said Lantern is part of a strategy to create an “unbreakable” internet.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Lucas: So an unbreakable internet would be an internet that is free of points of control whenever possible. So, the internet at this moment has all sorts of layers on which it is really breakable, whether or not that’s a power switch at a data center that any country could flip to block access to millions of people. So it goes very deep in terms of protocols at the Internet Engineering Task Force that are designed to make traffic more private and more resilient. And it also goes to levels of laws that countries pass to ensure that the internet is more private and more resilient to these points of control.

Kimberly Adams: What differentiates the way that Lantern works from, say, people in Russia using [virtual private networks] to bypass censorship there?

Lucas: So Lantern does run as a VPN on your phone, so there are certainly similarities to what you’re talking about. Traditional VPNs are a bit different in the sense that they all run VPN protocols. So from the perspective of a censor, they can see that traffic, and if they want to block VPNs they just switch off all that traffic. So it’s really trivial to block sort of a normal VPN that doesn’t do some of these more sophisticated things.

Adams: Lantern can be rather complicated to get on your phone. One of our producers tried it out themselves. How do you get over that hump in some of these countries where you operate?

Lucas: For sure. Definitely the ideal is to be able to just install these apps on your phone via the app stores, but that’s just not the reality, whether it’s because Apple doesn’t allow it, because they follow local laws or because these countries make it very difficult. So people can access our app on GitHub. So that means that in order to block access to Lantern’s installers, they would have to block all of GitHub. And that’s challenging for a lot of these countries because they rely so much on GitHub for day-to-day business and day-to-day developers doing the work that they do. So around the world, countries have been unwilling to take that step because the collateral damage is so significant.

Adams: The app is free for all users, so where does Lantern get its funding?

Lucas: So the one exception to that is that in China, we have a data cap. So each day, I think users get 256 megabytes of data. And beyond that, we throttle you. So if you want to get unlimited access, you have to get Lantern Pro. And then, actually in Iran, right now, the traffic is so extraordinary that we’ve had to do something similar there. I think it’s a 2-gigabyte cap right now for users in Iran. And beyond that, you have to buy Lantern Pro if you want unlimited access, which is very challenging for Iranians in particular, in that case because of U.S. sanctions. So a lot of our funding comes from our users, and then we do also get government funding from the U.S. State Department as well as from other [nongovernmental organizations].

Adams: You’re one small company. What role do you see for other tech firms in this idea of creating an unbreakable internet?

Lucas: Right now, with everything happening in Iran, the sort of urgency of this issue has become more clear than ever. You have teenage girls getting tortured and dying for their right to wear what they want and express themselves how they want to. So to me, I think there is really an almost laziness on the part of the global internet community and certainly cloud providers to kind of get on board with this idea that we have to do these things now because people’s lives are really at stake. And the rise of authoritarianism around the world has been such that we need to implement these fundamental sort of building blocks of a free society as soon as possible because the stakes seem to be getting higher and higher.

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The team

Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer