Reasoning Words: Should Public Libraries be TOR Exit Relays?

The Electronic Freedom Foundation reports that a a pilot project at the Lebanon, New Hampshire, Library to serve as a TOR exit relay has been temporarily halted, and potentially scotched, by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ProPublica has a rundown as well.

To shed some light on the the question of whether this an outrage or reasonable, here’s a quick TOR 101 lesson.  TOR (name comes from The Onion Router, but no relation to the satirical web site) is a means of using the Internet anonymously. Individual computers (of volunteers) provide entry into and exit from anonymous, encrypted network paths–sort of a series of safe houses that let  computer traffic pass from one to the next without recording from whence it came or wither it goes. (Disclosure: I’ve not used it, got as far as downloading the software, installing it, and chickening out. So somebody who has it running live can no doubt improve and correct that description.) Also: lots of good explanations around the web, including EFF’s “in plain English”. The key thing is that the set-up provides a theoretically untraceable way to navigate the Internet, and can be installed on any computer.

The Kilton, NH, library proposes to offer an exit for TOR, meaning people could use its computer network to get  materials anonymously. A bunch of questions ensue: what do people do in TOR and does it matter as a point of library policy? The dark speculations come easily: Deal drugs? Send a bomb threat? Plot  insurrection or worse? But in the other column, there are better possibilities: evading censorship for for political art? Blowing the whistle on unconstitutional surveillance? Negotiating a job offer across international borders or protecting a trade secret,  protecting the pre-release version of a blockbuster film? Negotiating safe passage for a political prisoner?

Since it’s software, TOR is simply a platform for human purposes, be they benign or malignant. It is no more culpable than the card catalog of a previous era: those listed  how to find books on the shelves, providing neutral access to anything, be it The Anarchists’ Cookbook or Charlotte’s Web. What patrons did with the books was their concern, and librarians at least aspired to stay out of that question.

Were I still a librarian, I would be vexed by this one. It’s a first amendment loving profession, and access is central (both characteristics resonate with me). At the same, criminal activity such as Silk Road, or ransomware, depend on TOR, to say nothing of payments that support terror that perhaps move through this as well. Yet, TOR’s stated goals are to support free expression, privacy, and human rights, and libraries, in their nerdy, sometimes quaint way engage with that every day. If some teenage Ai Wei Wei in North Korea is trying to get her message out, and my library is her exit relay, should I say no? Are the ideals of access entwined with rights to privacy–when that privacy (unlike curling up with a copy of the oft banned Ulysses say) means instant connections with the writhing volatile mass that the Internet can be.

I think on the whole (particularly if I were a New Hampshire librarian–a state that has “Live Free Or Die” on its license plants), I’d brave the battle and provide the relay. Libraries are now networks, and although its easy to stay neutral, and let others fight this battle, who is doing it? Our Google overlords have already got a huge advantage, and are so unfazed by their ability to track our every move online that their position–something which I think the STASI would have been fine with — is “don’t do anything that you shouldn’t, and everything will be fine.” Privacy in our lawful actions is not something we should compelled to give up, nor do our intentions and our explanations of what we might do become property of the state, even if some of our fellow inhabitants of the planet have dark ones, and use tools to foment them. TOR is tool to keep things private, at least some of which should be, even at a public library.

 

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