It may be called the World Wide Web, but in some parts of the world large chunks of the web are blocked or censored.
A non-profit organization has designed an app to circumvent this censorship called Lantern. The organization says its user base in Iran has grown by around 400% since the protests began two months ago and that up to 13% of Iranian internet capacity goes through the app.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with one of the Lantern developers. Due to his work in countries with oppressive regimes, we use the pseudonym “Lucas” to protect his identity. He said Lantern was part of a strategy to create an “unbreakable” internet.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Lucas: Thus, an unbreakable internet would be an internet free from checkpoints as much as possible. So the internet right now has all kinds of layers that it’s really breakable on, whether or not it’s a power switch in a data center that any country could flip to block the access to millions of people. So it goes a long way in terms of protocols within the Internet Engineering Task Force that are designed to make traffic more private and more resilient. And it’s also about the levels of laws that countries pass to ensure that the internet is more private and more resilient to those checkpoints.
Kimberly Adams: What differentiates the way Lantern works from, say, people in Russia who use [virtual private networks] bypass censorship?
Lucas: So Lantern works like a VPN on your phone, so there are certainly similarities to what you’re talking about. Traditional VPNs are a bit different in that they all run VPN protocols. So from a censor’s perspective, they can see that traffic, and if they want to block VPNs, they just disable all that traffic. So it’s really trivial to block some sort of normal VPN that doesn’t do some of these fancier things.
Adam: Lantern can be quite complicated to get on your phone. One of our growers tried it himself. How do you overcome this obstacle in some of these countries where you operate?
Lucas: For sure. Surely the ideal is to be able to just install these apps on your phone through the app stores, but that’s just not the reality, whether it’s because Apple doesn’t allow it, because they follow the local laws or because those countries make it very difficult. So people can access our application on GitHub. So that means to block access to Lantern installers, they would have to block all of GitHub. And that’s a challenge for a lot of those countries because they’re so dependent on GitHub for day-to-day business and day-to-day developers doing the work that they do. So, countries around the world have not wanted to take this step because the collateral damage is so great.
Adam: The app is free for all users, so where does Lantern get its funding from?
Lucas: So the only exception to that is that in China we have a data cap. So every day I think users get 256 megabytes of data. And beyond that, we strangle you. So, if you want to get unlimited access, you must get Lantern Pro. And then, actually in Iran right now, the traffic is so amazing that we had to do something similar there. I think it’s currently a 2 gigabyte cap for users in Iran. And beyond that, you have to buy Lantern Pro if you want unlimited access, which is very difficult for Iranians in particular, in this case because of US sanctions. So a lot of our funding comes from our users, and we also receive government funding from the US Department of State as well as other [nongovernmental organizations].
Adam: You are a small business. What role do you see for other tech companies in this idea of creating an unbreakable internet?
Lucas: Right now, with everything going on in Iran, the urgency of this issue has become clearer than ever. You have teenage girls being tortured and dying for their right to wear what they want and express themselves how they want. So for me I think there’s really a laziness on the part of the global internet community and certainly cloud providers to accept this idea that we need to do these things now because people’s lives are really at stake And the rise of authoritarianism in the world has been such that we need to put in place these fundamental elements of a free society as soon as possible, because the stakes seem to be getting higher and higher.
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