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“Lantern” Helps China's Web Users Dodge Censors Through Trusted Friends

On China's heavily censored web, many web users depend on Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and proxy servers to access blocked sites such as Facebook and YouTube. However, most of non-commercial proxy access points are blocked once the Chinese government identifies their existence. In fact, most of the public access points on Tor, part of a vast volunteer network that conceals a user's location, are blocked in China.

Joining the fight against censorship is a new circumvention software called Lantern, which launched recently. Using peer-to-peer technology, the software allows users to invite friends into a “trust network” and enables members of the same network who have VPN or free Internet access to share their Internet connection with their friends. This “trust network” makes it difficult for the government to discover individual access points as the network is dispersed and distributed. So far the majority of the users and traffic come from within China.

The makers of the free software released a video to explain how the program works, seen above.

Jian Alan Huang, a software engineer, shared the user information of the new software with his friends in Twitter:

The number of #Lantern's users has reached 10,000. About 7,500 come from China, which means 75 percent of its total users. Taking a look at its traffic, 90 percent come from China. My estimation is that about 1,500 users overseas are providing their network to help Chinese netizens to circumvent censorship. Only 1,000 users come from other regions.

Alan is among one of the users providing network access to his friends in mainland China:

I am planning to turn on an old computer only for the purpose of sharing. For those who want to get access to the other side of the Wall via #Lantern, please add me.

Many users shared their review on the new tool. Editor of ChinaChange.org Yaxue Cao reminded his friends that #Lantern cannot counter surveillance:

Lantern is a network target at defeating Internet censorship. It is a new software for friends to work together to get around the Wall. By installing and sharing this software, you can get access to censored information from outside the Great Firewall. However, Lantern only offers you an open door, it won't protect you from surveillance. If you need to prevent surveillance, you have to use Tor.

@wenyunchao, a Chinese activist based in US, has some suggestions to make:

I suggest that #Lantern provide a mutual connection mode as some users from outside China also want to get access to information in mainland China [that are blocked from foreign IP visits]. I believe this would attract more users from outside China to get connected to their friends on the inside. Also, if possible, the user should be able to set broadband traffic preferences. For example, they can choose to allocate 30 percent of their broadband to acquaintances.

@zuihulu and @MyDF explained why they chose Lantern as circumvention tool. @zuihulu pointed out that the software icon of Lantern light is very symbolic:

I have tried the tool for two days. The stability and speed is not as good as commercial VPNs or SSH. But lighting up the Lantern while going online this winter, with a bit of candle light shining from the computer monitor, I feel warmer inside.

#Lantern is the most warm-hearted collective action in the history of circumvention. The video is very touching. The interface is pretty and friends are working together. When the software is running, you can see a curve drawn across two continents [friend's network], you won't feel lonely this winter.

The program indicates to the user that they are connected to the network outside China. Image from Lantern.

The program indicates to the user that they are connected to the network outside China. Image from Lantern.

With the Great Firewall on Sina Weibo, the most popular microblogging website in China, there is little discussion about the new software there. Ken Wang managed to introduce the new tool to his friends by avoiding the use of sensitive words:

介绍一个全新的网络项目Lantern(灯笼),这是Google Ideas资助的一个计划,旨在通过p2p信任网络实现突破xxx的努力。项目原理类似点对点下载,每一台安装了灯笼的解放区电脑都可以作为proxy帮助沦陷区电脑上网。灯笼的特色在于只有信任的朋友才能互相帮助,以保证proxy的安全

Introduced a new Internet project called Lantern. It is a project sponsored by Google Ideas. It is an initiative to break through the XXX [Great Firewall deleted by Ken Wang to prevent censorship] by building a P2P trusted network. The mechanism is similar to BitTorrent. Computers from a liberated area running the Lantern program can serve as proxy for computers from occupied area. To protect the safety of the proxy, users are only connected to their friends’ networks.

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