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Friday, 9 April 2010

The Digital Economy Bill and Tor

The DEB is a soon to be new law and will be a very bad thing in the UK, but it just passed the House of Commons with virtually no debate. Explaining what it's all about is a bit beyond me, so just click the link to read what it says, then come back here.

There's two parts of it that seem especially troubling. One is that it seems to mandate the construction of a national firewall in the manner of the Great Firewall of China, in order to prevent people from breaking copyright. Of course, kiddiepron will also get on the list posthaste. And then terrorism. And then. And then. And then. Since the Apple iTunes store is incredibly profitable, the internet is clearly not destroying the ability of copyright holders to make money. Indeed, I do not believe that copyright is as much a motivator as is blocking access to websites such as wikileaks. That's the website that has the leaked video of American troops killing a milling group of civilians and Reuters reporters. They leak incriminating documents from governments and corporations. Of course, the internal memos of corporations ordering baby seals to be clubbed to death or whatever are all copyrighted and certainly posted without permission. The US government has been actively trying to figure out how to shut down the site [PDF]. Brits just won't be allowed to look at it.

The other troubling bit is the provision that people accused of doing forbidden things, like downloading the Colbert Report from bittorrent, will have their internet access cut off. This is at the same time that UK government services are increasingly moving online. Get your net cut off, and you cannot access government services. Is this really the appropriate punishment for a copyright violation? Note also that there's no trial, no defence, just accusations. So if they get confused and think that your legal Creative Commons music might be a copyright violation, you get cut off whether you violated copyright or not.

Cafés and other locations will be unable to provide free wireless because they'd get cut off for having naughty patrons. Indeed, the era of free public wifi has probably just been legislated away. T-Mobile can still charge you for access, because they know who you are, but the café down the street can't do that. The fact that this makes it much more expensive for people to get online is great for internet companies and crap for everybody else, especially people with limited resources.

The question that I have is how anybody would even know what you were doing with your internet connection anyway. There are two answers that I can think of: One is that media companies might put up "bait" files on firesharing services and watch who downloads them. The other, frankly more likely, method is for ISPs to spy on data. And if they can spy looking for people breaking copyright, they can also look for peadophiles and terrorists and anybody who is doing anything remotely unusual and you think you'll be ok because you're a politically centrist white middle class native-born citizen who never pirates anything, but maybe your kids do, or your computer caught a virus which caused it to do something naughty without your knowing about it or maybe you are just mistaken accused - you have no opportunity to defend yourself.


There are some programmes that can help. In this post, I'll talk about Tor, which you should run. Go download it. It doesn't matter what country you're in, running Tor is a public service. This program routes network traffic around in funny ways (via peer to peer) so that somebody looking at your network traffic can't tell what you're doing. Also, if you live in a place like China (or soon to be the UK) it will find a way for you to get to the site you want. It defeats this kind of firewall.

How it works is that when a user tries to look at a webpage, they don't connect to that webpage directly. Instead, they ask the Tor network for the web page. The request goes from person to person in the Tor network until it gets to somebody running an exit node. The exit node then asks for the page and sends the data back through the Tor network, from person to person, until it gets to the user. The users in between are helping the end user maintain their privacy. This can help bloggers in China, people who want freedom in Iran and other people engaging in prohibited political speech. Alas, it also helps people who are actually up to no good. But, I mean, you don't want the post office to open and read everybody's mail. You don't want the government to know about every single movie you watch. Privacy protects good guys and it protects bad guys and it protects people who just want to quietly live their lives without intrusion.

Perhaps you, dear reader, live in some place with a government that respects your privacy. Good for you! You can help out people in other countries by running a Tor node, even if you don't use it yourself. I've been doing this for years. I don't notice the loss of bandwidth and I hope that I'm helping somebody in a repressive country get access to information. The major downside of Tor is that it's kind of slow. But more nodes makes it run faster. And more exit nodes are a good thing. I just took mine down because I don't want to get my access turned off due to the DEB, but if you live in the States or someplace that has due process of law, you should run an exit node. That's the point at which traffic leaves the Tor network and goes to the regular network. So if somebody in China wants to read this very blog post (which is blocked there), an exit node in Texas might go ask for this page.

Installing and Configuring Tor

I use a Mac, but it should be similar on other systems. First, download it. Open the disk image and drag the Vidalia application to the /Applications folder. Don't put it anyplace else. Then open it. A window will open. Click the icon that says "Set up Relaying." A new window will open. It has tabs on it. You want to be on the "Sharing" tab. There are three options there. If you want to run an exit node, pick either "Relay traffic for the Tor network" or "Help censored users reach the Tor network." If you do not wish to run an exit node, pick "Relay traffic for the Tor network."

Some new tabs will open. First click on "Bandwidth Limits." How fast is your internet connection? Pick something that seems right. Then click on the "Exit Policies" tab. If you do not wish to run an exit node, uncheck every box. Those boxes are the sort of data you're allowing to exit, so if you have "Websites" checked, people who are looking for this blog post might exit from you. If you have "Instant Messaging (IM)" checked, people who are chatting on AIM or whatever might have their data getting onto AIM from you.

If you are running an exit node and somebody does something naughty and your country respects the rule of law, they cannot prove that it was you that asked for the naughty data, so you ought to be ok. I've been running an exit node for the last three years with no problems at all. Most traffic going through Tor is entirely innocent.

Now set Tor to start up automatically when you log in. You can do this by right clicking on the icon in the dock. On my mac, you put down two fingers on the trackpad, as if you were scrolling, and then click on it. A menu pops up. Go to opens and then Open at login. If you don't have the two-fingers-means-right-click thing, I'm not sure how you do this. Somebody leave a comment?

You may also wish to install Torbutton for Firefox, something which is covered in the next section.

Using Tor

One way to make the Tor network more secure is to put a lot of traffic on it. If the only stuff that's going by on it is stuff that people want to hide, then it's somewhat easier for governments to figure out who has something to hide. So it's for the best if a bunch of mundane stuff goes by. Boring stuff that nobody would ever want to snoop on. Then the really snoop-worthy stuff (like this very blog post in some countries) can get through undetected. However, the thing about bouncing traffic around from node to node is that it's slow. Try it out and see if you want to deal with the slowness.

The easiest way to turn your own use of it on and off is through Tor button. There's a script in the install package/ on the disk image called "Install Torbutton for Firefox." If you have firefox this is very easy. Just install it and then you get a little bit of text on the lower right hand corner of the browser window. When it's red and says "Tor Disabled", you are browsing the web in the normal way - not through the Tor network. Your relay is still running. If you want to use Tor to browse the web and do other things, click on that text. It will turn green and say "Tor Enabled." Your network traffic is now going through Tor. Try connecting to It will load the Google web page for whatever country your exit node is in. I just got German Google. Try searching for something and then clicking one of the links. You may notice that it's slower than you're used to. If you decide it's too slow, just click on the green "Tor Enabled" text to turn it back off and browse the web normally. Your Tor node will still be running and helping other people, you just won't be using it yourself.

During the time that you have enabled Tor with firefox, it's enabled for all web browsing on your system. That means that if you enable Tor with firefox and then use the Chrome web browser, you will still be going through Tor. You can use firefox to turn Tor on, then quit firefox and it will still be on. If you want to turn it off, you can re-start firefox and click the green text in the lower right hand corner, or you can reboot your computer.

Using Camino as your stealth browser

Ideally, it would be cool if you could have one browser program that used it and another that didn't, so you could use one for things that you want private or don't mind slowness and the other for things you want to go faster. If you are a new user or are not a geek, you may wish stop reading now. Otherwise, this is how I got Camino to be my Tor browser while leaving other browsers untouched. Camino doesn't have a pron mode, but it's an ok browser for this - it's more lightweight than firefox but fairly configurable.

When I opened the preferences for Vidalia, under general, there is a section on proxies. The proxy it lists is not privoxy, which is the one that is/was used by Tor button, but is something called polipo. On my system, it did not actually start because the conf file listed there conflicts with privoxy, which runs on port 8118. Polpio's conf file tells it to run on that port, but the normal default port for polpio is 8123. I changed the conf file to reflect this and the polpio now starts for me. If this isn't a problem for you, don't change this.

Camino can be configured to use different proxy settings than the rest of the system. By opening the hidden preferences , which you do by typing "about:config" in the address bar. The settings in the link above did not fuly work for me, but I found a very helpful document elsewhere. I've got: camino.use_system_proxy_settings set to false. network.proxy.autoconfig_url is set to . network.proxy.http is set to and network.proxy.http is set to 8123. network.proxy.type is set to 1. Probably all the network.proxy.* and and network.proxy.*_port should be set to and 8123 (or 8118 if you did not change the port for polpio), except for SOCKS which should be set to port 9050. For more information on web browsers, see here and to read more about Tor on OS X, look at this page.

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