US-funded Lantern program allows Chinese to dodge Great Firewall and view banned websites

Software program funded by US government that helps internet users get around censorship is rapidly winning friends on the mainland

Lantern, a new software programme which allows internet users to circumvent government-imposed censorship, is seeing rapid growth in China as more people are using it to bypass the Great Firewall of China to access websites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

“China just cleared 10,000 users,” Chris Holmes, a product manager behind the computer application, told the in an email. “Two weeks ago, it was probably 200.”

Holmes is one of five software developers at Brave New Software developing the application, which is currently available in a beta version.

The software allows users in countries with free internet access to donate a share of their internet bandwidth to users in countries where some websites are blocked, such as China or Iran. Once they log in, a share of their traffic is channeled through the network. 

Lantern calls itself a trust network, because it sends this traffic only through users separated from him or her by four degrees, or, in other words, everyone a user could meet by four rounds of introductions. Snooping by government agencies could therefore not be ruled out, Holmes said.

“Lantern is a tool to provide access – it is not designed to prevent monitoring,” he cautioned.

Invites to download the software were originally shared exclusively via friends and like-minded contacts on Google Chat, a chat service provided by the world’s most popular search engine provider.

By the middle of November, however, explanations on how to access the software started to appear on Chinese online forums. Internet celebrities like Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei have mentioned Lantern in tweets. 

Dr Alan Huang is such a user in Sydney, Australia. The software engineer in his thirties provides 30 megabits per second of bandwidth to other users. “I do this to provide free access to users in the mainland,” he said. “I just leave my computer running at home.”

As of Wednesday, 77.9 per cent of the software’s 13,000 users are in China. They have transferred some 3.9 terabytes of data across the firewall, or 92.9 per cent of Lantern’s global traffic.

The software is financed by US$2.2 million (HK$17.1 million) seed funding by the US State Department, said Holmes. This year, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development have awarded US$25 million to groups working to advance internet freedom, according to the State Department’s Office of International Communications and Information Policy. 

Adam Fisk, president of Brave New Software, said he was optimistic about the future of an uncensored internet when he spoke at a TED-talk in Hoboken in September. “We are now shifting from building Lantern, the software, to building Lantern, the movement,” he said.

Fisk was one of the geeks behind LimeWire, a free peer-to-peer file sharing platform which allowed the sharing of pirated music and films. In 2011, the Recording Industry Association of America famously sought a record US$72 trillion in damages from the LimeWire for the copyright violations it allegedly caused.

Fisk said the Lantern software was first put to test in the Iranian presidential elections in June this year. In October, Google revealed it was working with Fisk’s team and the University of Washington to develop uProxy, a browser extension which, just like Lantern, uses peer-to-peer technology to evade internet censorship.

For one IT expert in Guangzhou, who requested anonymity, Lantern is the most intuitive tool to access the internet freely he has seen so far, he said. Yet, concerns persist that the Chinese government might find a way to stop it from spreading.

Wen Yunchao, a New York-based internet activist who has spread the word about the software, said he was worried its increasing popularity could lead to Chinese authorities shutting down Google Chat. “They might even shut down Gmail, if they figure it out,” he wrote in an email.

Correction: an earlier online version of the story wrongly mentioned Hu Jia as a user. Invites can be shared not only via Google Chat.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lantern lights up banned websites