Libraries, Tor, and free speech

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Libraries are supposed to be forums for information and ideas, and the Library Bill of Rights states, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” And “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgement of free expression and free access to ideas.” The American Library Association (ALA) explains, “Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.” One of the organizations that some libraries are cooperating with to protect privacy is the Library Freedom Project.

The Library Freedom Project (LFP) recently announced a collaboration with the Tor Project to put Tor exit relays in libraries. Tor is the onion routing network. The Tor Project seeks to help people protect their privacy online through using the Tor browser and other tools. In a post announcing the partnership, the LFP wrote, “This is an idea whose time has come; libraries are our most democratic public spaces, protecting our intellectual freedom, privacy, and unfettered access to information, and Tor Project creates software that allows all people to have these rights on the internet. What’s more, Tor Project is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which is the best defense against government and corporate surveillance. We’re excited to combine our efforts to help libraries protect internet freedom, strengthen the Tor network, and educate the public about how Tor can help protect their right to digital free expression.”

The first library to partner with the LFP and run a Tor node was the Kilton Library in Lebanon, NH in July. The Verge reports “in August, the Department of Homeland Security got in touch with local police, who contacted the library about shutting down its relay. The library complied, for a time.” On September 15 there was a meeting of the Library Board, and the Board decided to turn the Tor node back on.

Alison Macrina, Director of the LFP, was among roughly 40 people to attend the meeting. She told the board the LFP has heard from about a dozen libraries wanting to implement Tor relays. Saying the only reason Kilton was alone in July was they needed a pilot. “Now,” she says, “we’re just waiting for more libraries to pour in and join us.”

The Kilton Library has also been running Linux, instead of Windows, on their computers in an effort to protect the privacy of their patrons. Microsoft is a known participant in the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, which was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

It is my hope that more libraries will partner with the LFP to run Tor relays, and possibly even Tor exit nodes, in an effort to help protect the privacy of their patrons.