Meet the tech making online censorship "a very difficult thing to achieve"
Footage of people taking to the streets in China have been filling the news for over a week. The nationwide wave of demonstrations against the strict zero-Covid policy is considered to be the biggest since the 1989 massacre of Tiananmen Square.
It's not confined to the streets, though - the internet is an important battlefield too. Digital protestors are using software like the best VPN services to break through China’s Great Firewall and spread information outside the country's borders.
While Chinese authorities might be the most equipped in the field, online censorship is on the rise everywhere across the world. In Iran, for example, the government recently restricted Instagram and WhatsApp in an effort to silence protesters. The same happened in Turkey after the Istanbul blast.
According to the latest report from Freedom House, in 2022 two-thirds of the countries analyzed "cut residents off from the flow of news and information across borders." At the same time, "governments are increasingly blocking, criminalizing, or imposing regulatory requirements on circumvention tools." A crackdown on VPNs is exactly what's happening right now in China.
With authorities increasingly targeting VPN apps, a tech company has developed a tool solely focused on helping people to bypass censorship. As one of its developers told TechRadar, Lantern (opens in new tab) does whatever it needs to access censored content.
What is Lantern?
"Lantern is still working great in China," said Lucas, one of Lantern's developers. "It's just purely focused on how to get traffic in and out of highly censored countries."
People living outside environments of extreme censorship may well have never heard about such a software. But Lantern has been helping people beat censorship for a long time now, since around 2013.
Users seeking to evade the Great Firewall were the first to download Lantern when their VPN for China wasn't enough. "To a large degree we sort of earned our stripes in China and learned a lot there."
Then, the 2016 wave of pro-monarchy protests made it popular among Iranians. A similar surge in demand wasn't matched until September of this year, when the death of 22-year girl Mahsa Amini sparked a wave of unrests still ongoing.
"I think relatively early on, especially in China, it was clear that there was going to be an ongoing battle between tools and censors. So, we just thought that we had some useful role to play. Some useful ideas and technical expertise to be more sophisticated."
From protocols' variations hiding the traffic the government wants to censor, to several server configurations able to escape authorities' blocks, Lantern employs a wide variety of different techniques depending on which censorship machine needs to be defeated.
"We've made some little optimizations in some countries because we realized we could exploit some loopholes," Lucas told TechRadar. "There are definitely common things that we do across. But it can be the case that one protocol that works in one country doesn't work in another, or just the context is a little different."
For instance, political events seem to be a big factor to consider as most countries adopt a more stringent grip during politically sensitive moments.
Available for all the major operating systems (Windows, Android, iOS MacOS and Ubuntu), users can choose between both a free and paid plan. The latter provides unthrottled access over the daily data cap of 256MB. It gives users access to special data centers, too.
The vast majority of people downloading the tool are Lantern free users. However, following the latest events In China, the company saw a 400% increase in purchases of Lantern Pro.
Lantern vs VPNs
Lantern certainly isn't the only circumventing tool out there. Secure VPN services are widely used to bypass censorship online, for example. However, according to its CEO, Lantern is better equipped for such a task.
A means to boost online privacy, a VPN spoofs users' real location. This means that they can theoretically access otherwise censored content no matter where they are in the world.
Unfortunately, as VPNs usage increased among those living under restricted internet freedom, governments are working harder and harder to hinder their work.
That's mainly possible as providers employ specific VPN protocols to encrypt traffic that techniques, like deep packet inspection, can identify and block. They usually have just a few IP addresses in each country, too, that can be easily recognized.
Despite VPNs now employing tactics like obfuscation technology to evade such blocks, Lucas believes that the difference between the two is still considerable.
"With Lantern there's this huge gap of many different techniques involved to make it more sophisticated about getting around what censors are doing and what censors are capable of," he said.
With almost 10 years of experience under its belt, Lantern users have increased about four times over the last year. "Sadly, as the world gets worse, our users go up," said Lucas.
As the issue of censorship is expected to get even more relevant in the near future, the firm is working on some new features to open up the internet for everyone across the world.
Discover provides a censorship-resistant and privacy-protected public content archive, while offering 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 inside the country," explained Lucas explained.
Available just for Android and desktops at the time of writing, the feature has already been used among Iranians over the past months.
Yet to be released, its Chat feature is a secure and private messaging service. It's very similar to Signal, but with more secure defaults and a built-in censorship circumvention. It requires no phone number, no personal registration and no sim card for extra anonymity.
In the pipeline, there's also a web proxying project expected to be out by the end of the year. This will work as a widget that can be integrated on any website, allowing visitors to click on it and use it as a proxy to get access to the open internet.
Whether it is through effective protocols running underneath, or people in uncensored regions contributing with their IP address and bandwidth, Lantern wants to be a tool for making the Internet more free at a fundamental level in a really collaborative way.
"By virtue of deploying this sort of overlay network on the Internet, our hope is making censorship a very difficult thing to achieve."