The Tor Project is one of the six organsations that recently won a big grant from Knight Foundation, as part of the Knight News Challenge. It’s easy to understand why it caught the eyes of the judges, and walked away with $320,000.
The project is a non-profit organisation that provides free, open-source software to allow users to act anonymously online. As the project’s website explains, Tor has created a series of “virtual tunnels,” which distribute users’ transactions to different locations around the Internet, so that they cannot be pinpointed to a single place. Tor hides users’ activity among that of other members of the network, so the more people using it, they more secure it becomes.
Tor was first developed in a US Navy lab, with the aim of securing government communications, as Nieman Lab explains. Now, however, the network has a wide range of uses for the general public, not least for journalists and whistleblowers.
Tor writes on its website that it is used by citizen journalists in regimes with limited press freedom, such as China, to write about social and political reform. The system is also used by bloggers, activists and whistleblowers to protect their activities, says Tor. Some concrete examples: the network was used in East Asia to anonymously reveal information about sweatshops that make goods used by Western companies, says the website. It has also been used by a non-profit health organisation in Africa to blow the whistle on government corruption.
However, “the vast majority” of people who use Tor want to prevent their Internet activity being tracked by advertisers, according to the organisation’s executive director Andrew Lewman, who is quoted by Nieman Lab. Lewman describes his frustration with companies who take user data and use it to boost profits. “They start out by saying we love you, we’ll cherish your data, but by page 16, paragraph five, it’s ‘We’ll sell your data to anybody possible, and you cannot opt out,” says Lewman, quoted in the article. Tor is a way to combat the problem.
If the Tor network ever became really widespread, this does represent a potential dilemma for news organisations online. Media organisations have been encouraged to look to targeted advertising as a new source of revenue. If a large chunk of users mask their identities, this revenue stream would be compromised.
Nevertheless, Tor data suggests that the total number of people around the globe who log in to the network per day is somewhere just above 400,000. In the US, the number is around 60,000. That’s nothing to be sniffed at, but it’s probably not enough to really compromise a single news organisation’s advertising strategy.
More importantly, looking at the tools the organisation is developing, it’s difficult to argue that Tor won’t provide a net benefit for journalism. One of the projects the organisation is working on allows users to take a live USB or DVD, and use it as an anonymous operating system, without leaving any evidence behind on the local network. As Lewman explains to Nieman Lab, the service could allow citizen journalists to anonymously post footage online at times of unrest, without feeling retribution from a repressive state. With WikiLeaks in limbo, other whistleblowing organisations like Open Leaks not really off the ground, and an apparent crackdown on whistleblowers is occurring in the US, the service could prove important.
Finally, the project has prestigious journalism and human rights organisations on its side. According to its website, Tor is supported by Reporters Without Borders and the US International Broadcasting Bureau, recommended by Global Voices, has consulted with Amnesty International’s corporate responsibility campaign and has received funding from Human Rights Watch.
With these backers in mind, maybe we can hope that Tor will help improve reporting, without giving publishers too much of a headache.