Footage of people taking to the streets in China has been in the news for over a week. The nationwide wave of demonstrations against the strict zero Covid policy is the largest since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
It’s not just the streets, though, that the internet is an important battlefield, too. Digital demonstrators use software like the best VPN services to hack China’s Great Firewall and spread information beyond the country’s borders.
While the Chinese authorities may be best equipped in this area, internet censorship is on the rise everywhere around the world. In Iran, for example, the government recently restricted Instagram and WhatsApp in an effort to silence protesters. The same thing happened in Turkey after the Istanbul explosion.
According to the latest report by Freedom House, in 2022, two-thirds of countries analyzed will have “cut off their populations from the cross-border flow of news and information.” At the same time, “governments are increasingly banning, criminalizing, or imposing regulatory requirements on circumvention tools.” The crackdown on VPNs is exactly what is happening right now in China.
With VPN apps increasingly targeted by the authorities, a technology company has developed a tool focused solely on helping people bypass censorship. As one of its developers told TechRadar, Lantern (Opens in a new tab) It does whatever it takes to access censored content.
What is a lantern?
“Lantern is still doing great in China,” said Lucas, one of the developers of Lantern. “It’s just focused on how to get traffic in and out of heavily controlled countries.”
People who live outside of highly controlled environments may have never heard of such software. But Lantern has been helping people overcome censorship for a long time, since around 2013.
Users seeking to avoid the Great Firewall were the first to download Lantern when their VPN for China just wasn’t enough. “We’ve pretty much earned our stripes in China and learned a lot there.”
Then, the wave of pro-monarchy protests in 2016 made it popular among Iranians. There was not a similar spike in demand until September of this year, when the death of the 22-year-old, Mahsa Amini, set off a wave of unrest that is still ongoing.
“I think relatively early on, especially in China, it was clear that there was going to be a constant battle between tools and censorship. So, we just thought we had a useful role to play. Some useful ideas and technical expertise that needs to be further developed.”
From variations of protocols that mask traffic that the government wants to censor, to numerous server configurations capable of escaping authorities’ blocks, Lantern uses a variety of different technologies depending on which censorship machine needs to be defeated.
“We made some small improvements in some countries because we knew we could exploit some vulnerabilities,” Lucas told TechRadar. “There are definitely common things that we do across. But it could be the case that one protocol that works in one country doesn’t work in another, or that the context is a little different.”
For example, political events seem to be a big factor to consider as most countries adopt a tighter grip during politically sensitive moments.
Available for all major operating systems (Windows, Android, iOS MacOS, and Ubuntu), users can choose between both a free and a paid plan. The latter provides unrestricted access via the daily data cap of 256MB. It gives users access to private data centers as well.
The vast majority of people who download the tool are free Lantern users. However, after the recent events in China, the company has seen a 400% increase in Lantern Pro purchases.
Lanterns vs VPNs
Lantern certainly isn’t the only gimmick out there. Secure VPN services are widely used to bypass internet censorship, for example. However, according to its CEO, Lantern is better equipped for such a mission.
A way to increase online privacy, a VPN spoofs the real location of users. This means that they can theoretically access censored content no matter where they are in the world.
Unfortunately, as the use of VPNs increases among those who live under restricted internet freedom, governments are working harder to mask their operation.
This is possible mainly because service providers use specific VPN protocols to encrypt traffic that technologies such as Deep Packet Inspection can identify and block. They usually have a few IP addresses in each country as well, which are easily identifiable.
Although VPNs now use tactics such as obfuscation technology to avoid such blocking, Lucas believes that the difference between the two is still significant.
“With Lantern, there’s a huge gap in the many different technologies used to make it more complex about getting around what censors do and what censors can do,” he said.
With nearly 10 years of experience under her belt, Lantern users have increased about four times over the past year. “Unfortunately, while the world is getting worse, the users are going up,” Lucas said.
As the issue of censorship is expected to become more important in the near future, the company is working on some new features to open up the internet for everyone around the world.
explore Provides an archive of censorship-proof and privacy-protected public content, while providing an easy way to find and share censored or potentially censored content. Using peer-to-peer technology, all Lantern users can anonymously and securely upload videos and content for the world to see.
“The idea is that it’s a free space to distribute content internally within the country,” Lucas explained.
The feature is only available for Android and desktop devices at the time of writing, and the feature has already been in use among Iranians over the past months.
The use of lanterns is increasing in Iran … At present, at least 8% of the total Internet capacity in Iran is paid through our application! Please continue to share our free and open access internet download: https://t.co/j3xsgaShZB #MahsaAmini #filternetSeptember 30, 2022
It has not been released yet, it is chat The feature is a private and secure messaging service. It’s very similar to Signal, but with more secure default settings and built-in censorship bypass. It requires no phone number, no personal registration, and no sim card for more anonymity.
In the pipeline, there is also a file Web Proxies Project It is expected to be out by the end of the year. This will act as a tool that can be integrated into any website, allowing visitors to click on it and use it as a proxy to access the open internet.
Whether it’s efficient protocols running underground, or people in uncensored areas contributing their own IP address and bandwidth, Lantern wants to be a tool for making the Internet freer at a fundamental level in a truly collaborative way.
“With the deployment of this type of overlay network on the Internet, we hope to make censorship very difficult to achieve.”