It may be called the World Wide Web, but in some parts of the world large parts of the internet are blocked or censored.
A non-profit organization has developed a program to bypass censorship called Lantern. The organization says its user base has grown nearly 400% since the protests began in Iran two months ago, and 13% of Iran’s internet capacity is powered by the app.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with one of Lantern’s developers. Because he works in countries with oppressive regimes, we use the pseudonym “Lucas” to protect his identity. According to him, Lantern is part of a strategy to create an “unbreakable” internet.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Lucas: Thus, an unbreakable internet would be an internet free from checkpoints whenever possible. So the internet right now has all kinds of layers that can really be broken, whether it’s a power switch in a data center that any country can turn to block access to millions of people. So the Internet Engineering Task Force goes deep in terms of protocols designed to make traffic more private and more durable. It also refers to the levels of legislation that countries pass to ensure that the internet is more private and more resistant to these checkpoints.
Kimberly Adams: What makes the way a flashlight works, for example, different from what people in Russia use [virtual private networks] bypass censorship there?
Lucas: So Lantern works like a VPN on your phone, so there are definitely similarities to what you’re talking about. Traditional VPNs are slightly different in the sense that they all run VPN protocols. So from a censorship point of view, they can see that traffic and if they want to block VPNs, they turn off all that traffic. So blocking a normal VPN type that doesn’t do some of these more complex things is really irrelevant.
Adams: The flashlight can be quite complicated to access on your phone. One of our producers tried it themselves. How do you get off that hill in some of these countries where you operate?
Lucas: For sure. Of course, the ideal would be to be able to install these apps on your phone only through the app stores, but that’s not a reality 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. This means that in order to block access to Lantern installers, they would have to block all of GitHub. And it’s difficult for a lot of these countries because they rely so much on GitHub for their day-to-day work and the day-to-day developers doing what they do. So countries all over the world are reluctant to take this step because the collateral damage is too great.
Adams: The software is free for all users, so where does Lantern get its funding?
Lucas: So the one exception to this is the data cap in China. So I think users get 256 megabytes of data every day. And besides, we choke you. So, if you want unlimited access, you should get Lantern Pro. And then, actually in Iran, the traffic is so unusual right now that we had to do something similar there. I think this is currently the 2 gigabyte limit for users in Iran. Also, if you want unlimited access, you need to buy Lantern Pro, which is very difficult especially for Iranians due to US sanctions. So most of our funding comes from our users and then we get government funding from the US State Department as well as other countries. [nongovernmental organizations].
Adams: You are a small company. What role do you see for other tech firms in the idea of creating an unbreakable internet?
Lucas: With everything happening in Iran at the moment, the urgency of this issue has become clearer than ever. You have teenage girls being tortured and dying for the right to wear what they want and express themselves however they want. I think the global internet community and certainly the cloud providers have been really lazy to buy into the idea that we need to do these things now because people’s lives are really at stake. The rise of authoritarianism around the world is such that we must implement this basic type of free society as soon as possible, because the stakes seem ever higher.