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POSTED BY Rajat Bhardwaj

If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
-Noam Chomsky

Expression is in the nucleus of our being. We require it to exist in a peaceful society, where conflict is handled by dialogue. But this leads to a tragic truth in our current day, that most channels of communication are controlled by an agenda. The Internet, however, provides us with some solace. Social media outlets, Internet forums, and the alike provide a podium and allow the audience to respond.

The Onion Router (TOR) is a browser that equips the user with the veil of anonymity while using the Internet.  By virtue of the technology, one user sacrifices his or her anonymity to facilitate others. This raises concerns regarding the individual rights of the facilitator, in particular the exit node, who remains vulnerable to legal actions. In countries where this technology is completely banned, users face harsher disciplinary actions further limiting expression on the Internet.

The TOR browser works on a layered encryption system, hence the onion analogy. Volunteers create and administer servers called Tor nodes, which collectively make the Tor network. These nodes provide access to the network, which in turn provides anonymity to its user by tunneling the traffic through layers of encryption at every node. Information travels through a minimum circuit of three nodes giving additional protection to the user even from the facilitator. First, the entry node communicates directly with the user passing their request; second, the request reaches the relay node, linking the first and final node; third, the exit node passes communication to its destination. While the exit nodes may be able to read the traffic being handled, they are not able to identify the user.

TOR is a complex process of layering but is handled automatically by the TOR software. Unlike peer-to-peer software like Napster, where information travels through the Internet, information here travels through volunteer nodes. This veil is not welcomed by everyone. It posses a threat to government censorship and digital media owned by entertainment corporations.

In the United States, there is no law currently restricting the use of TOR. These formats are difficult to monitor; however efforts are underway by the government to gain a backdoor to such networks. China provides an example of similar attempts by the government, where TOR is illegal under the Revised Provisional Regulations Governing the Management of Chinese Computer Information Networks Connected to International Networks, which bans Internet users from setting themselves up as or using other access channels for international networking. People in China may only access the Internet through a government-regulated public channel, often referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” China has achieved this by blocking all TOR entry nodes utilizing its firewall. Users may be still be able to avoid these measure by continuing to build bridge nodes, but at least 80% of the entry nodes have been disabled.

TOR networks also create copyright issues for entertainment studios.  In 2010 massive litigation ensued of tens of thousand of BitTorrent users who shared a copy of the movie Hurt Locker. Internet service providers (ISP) were subpoenaed to release the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of infringing users to identify them. A similar threat is present to exit nodes who will appear as the source any infringing activity. Considering the sensitive position of the volunteers, their rights as facilitator of free information rather than sources of illegal activity may be worth considering.

The Digital Media Copyright Act s. 512 (a) includes provision giving safe harbor to transitory digital network communication providers. To qualify for these provision the provider must meet two threshold conditions: (1) maintain a termination policy for repeating infringers and (2) comply with “standard technical measures”. As for the first, TOR operators maintain a default exit policy of preventing file sharing and spamming by blocking ports associated with such activity – for example, blocking access to Rapidshare and Megaupload. The second condition translates to “technical measure that are used by copyright owners to identify or protect copyright works.” Although measure such as “geo-blocking” are employed to restrict access to Internet media to certain areas in accordance with licensing agreements, including IP Address Filtering as a copyright protection measure would be overbroad since it would prohibit widespread legal technologies such as virtual provider networks (VPN).

The First Amendment protects an individual’s rights to receive information and we see its dire need on the world stage. The 2009 Iranian election riots and its subsequent empowering tremors in the Arab Spring illustrate the capacity of the citizen journalist. Here peopled used social media to report events in real time actions of oppressive regimes. TOR curtails censorship by providing the user with nontraceablity essential to free expression.

Anonymous browsing software is not without drawbacks. Online hidden black-markets like the Silk Road and exploitive media content are real concerns. However, the tools of expression that it provides are so fundamental to a balanced exchange of ideas that a conversation about it may be in order.

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