As so often happens, a government attempt to quash the use of technology it doesn't like has made that tech more popular than ever. A week after the Department of Homeland Security intimidated a New Hampshire public library into shutting down its Tor relay, about a dozen other libraries nationwide have shown interest in running their own Tor services.
In July, the Kilton Public Library in New Hampshire agreed to become the first library to operate a Tor node, meaning its contributing bandwidth to the popular anonymous web browsing protocol. There is a well-known dearth of node operators, which are also known as relays. Because of the way Tor distributes traffic across many different servers, as more people operate these relays, the network becomes both faster and more secure.
The plan, launched by the Library Freedom Project, is to get public libraries across the country to agree to operate relays. Progress was slow as its founder, Alison Macrina, slowly reached out to individual libraries about the project.
"Librarians started emailing us saying 'How can we join the movement? How can we run these relays?'"
And then the Department of Homeland Security got involved.
Last week, DHS warned Lebanon, New Hampshire police that Tor can be used by criminals—the standard federal line is that the service fosters a "zone of lawlessness" filled with terrorists and child pornographers. The Kilton Library shut down its relay in order to hold a public meeting about the future of the relay. Internet freedom activists started online petitions asking the library to restore the node, news stories about the shutdown shot to the top of Reddit, and, on social media, the news went about as viral as a fairly esoteric privacy story could.
Tuesday night, the Lebanon Library Board of Trustees unanimously decided to resume operating the node.
"Folks have emailed me saying 'We don't care if it gets shut down, we want to push back'"
"Not a single person in the audience had a dissenting thing to say, it was amazing," Macrina told me. "I've never seen a public referendum like that come down so strongly in favor of free speech. It was the world's first ever Tor protest, and we were just blown away."
The attention didn't just spur the Kilton Public Library to take a stand, however. It's also blown up the project as a whole, according to Nima Fatemi, who works with Macrina on the project.
"Librarians started emailing us saying 'How can we join the movement? How can we run these relays?'" he told me.
Photo of the "first @torproject rally in the history of mankind" #KiltonLibrary #nhitslikethistoo pic.twitter.com/B15sbi47Ie
— Jason Sorens (@JasonSorens) September 16, 2015
Macrina says that in many respects, DHS's involvement was the best thing that could have possibly happened for the project.
"If DHS hadn't gotten involved, we'd have one exit relay we finished that was operational, maybe a couple other libraries interested. This has catalyzed additional libraries and community members," she said. "Folks have emailed me saying 'We don't care if it gets shut down, we want to push back against [DHS],' saying 'I don't want the government to use intimidation tactics against its citizens.'"
"Between libraries and community leaders around the country, we've heard from probably about a dozen who are interested in joining this," she added.
Kilton Public Library's relay is back online, but the federal government's disdain for Tor isn't likely to end anytime soon. Operating a Tor relay is not illegal, but we still don't know exactly what DHS told local police, and we don't know what the federal government's next move is.
At the very least, Macrina and Fatemi say that the last week has been incredibly rewarding. They believes Tor's mission of free speech and privacy aligns quite well with the public library system's, and the controversy caused lots of people in New Hampshire and around the country to look into what the technology is all about. In fact, the Valley News, a local newspaper, admitted in an editorial that though understanding the technology of Tor was "above [their] pay grade," it supported the library in "taking the lead in a suddenly controversial controversial project."
"This was a case of miseducation, and that's why we have libraries," Fatemi said. "If we enable and empower libraries, we can educate communities around them—and law enforcement is included in that."