How an LA coder is making the Internet free from Bahrain to China

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Published on Feb. 02, 2015
How an LA coder is making the Internet free from Bahrain to China


Adam Fisk became a hero for internet access accidentally. While working at peer-to-peer music sharing platform LimeWire, he realized the music-sharing platform had insights into other uses as well. “We had to design all these crazy architectures to make peer-to-peer work. I realized you could use similar approaches to pretty effectively get around censorship,” said Fisk.

The idea for Lantern – an app you download to circumvent censorship everywhere from the Middle East and Asia – began to take shape. “We are trying to create this global, cooperative system where people in the uncensored world are effectively sort of volunteering to help solve this problem,” said Fisk.

Lantern takes a growing problem – internet censorship for millions of people worldwide – and tries to beat it by using personal connections and technology. For people without access to news sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social sites, Lantern brings hope.

Beating Censorship by Connecting Friends


Fisk (pictured left) wasn’t looking to build a new VPN (a virtual private network that is commonly used in highly-censored countries to circumvent firewalls). “We are building software that can stay unblocked and then scale both technically and also financially,” said Fisk. This is a different approach than the VPN approach, where users pay for access. “Things like VPNs you have to charge for because of their architecture,” he added.

Lantern is free to download and use.

When a computer with Lantern turns on in the free world, real-world connections in the censored world (friends, family members, social media contacts) gain unfettered access to the internet. When that first user turns off his computer, that connection goes dead and Lantern re-routes the traffic. “Lantern will always use whatever is available but maybe they have another friend who is still running, they would automatically go through them,” said Fisk.

Using peer-to-peer makes detection by governments, and ultimately blockage, more difficult. “Peer-to-peer is useful in blocking resistance on the many access points we are able to deploy. It’s very difficult for a sensor to keep track of all these access points as people are turning on and off their computers all around the world,” said Fisk.

If a user doesn’t have real world connections to the free world, as many likely do not, Fisk says their software can help with that too. “Say you don’t have any friends online, we have domain fronting. Basically what it does is allows us to sneak our traffic into traffic that is unblocked,” said Fisk.

Fisk started coding for Lantern one night by himself, but the team is now 10 strong and worldwide. Most of the coders working for Lantern go by pseudonyms.


Not All Press is Good

Marketing is a particular challenge for a company that wants to beat government censors. After an article stating Lantern was a State Department funded project trying to subvert the Chinese authority, China blocked their site. While Lantern is largely funded by the U.S. government, it is also a private non-profit. The company uses many techniques so those in the censored world are still able to download its software.

Lantern hasn’t done any marketing in key markets such as China and Iran, but rather relies on social networks to spread the word. “Especially in China, people talk about Lantern in social networks and provide links to installers,” said Fisk.

At any given time, there are 1,200 people from Bahrain to China, Iran to Vietnam all relying on Lantern to access the internet, but Fisk hopes to grow that number substantially. Lantern is also working on mobile apps and a commercial project.

Helping to Make the Internet Free

If you are reading this, it probably means you live somewhere with free access to the internet. Fisk’s call to action: download Lantern. “If you are running Lantern, you are effectively donating $5 a month to this cause,” said Fisk.

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