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 totally 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 is 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 whither it goest. (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 one from EFF’s “in plain English” series. 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 library proposes to offer an exit for TOR, meaning people could use its computer network to download materials anonymously. A bunch of questions ensue: what do people do in TOR, and does this activity matter as a point of library policy? The dark speculations come easily: Deal drugs? Send a bomb threat? Plot insurrection or worse? Just steal software? 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? Organizing for rights in a closed regime? 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 library card catalog of a previous era: those listed  how to find books on the shelves, providing neutral access to anything, be it The Anarchist 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 bots, may live in TOR, organizing capacity for hate groups, and human trafficking networks could lurk as well. Yet, TOR’s stated goals are to support free expression, privacy, and human rights, and libraries, in their nerdy, sometimes quaint way aim to live that mission every day. If some teenage Ai Wei Wei-type in is trying to get her message out, and my library is her exit relay, should I say no? Access is entwined with the right to privacy: being able to checking out the oft-banned Ulysses, for instance, means being able to check this out more or less anonymously. If I use a library terminal to tap the Internet, what content is fair game, and what level of privacy is appropriate?

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 networks, and although its easy to stay out of the fray, and let others fight this battle, who is really doing it from the public interest side? 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, perhaps even particularly there, where there is a means to discuss the public good and answer to it.

 

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