Privacy SOS

New Hampshire library to implement Tor above DHS objections—and how

A few weeks ago the Department of Homeland Security tried to intervene in a local library’s privacy program. Last night, the community roundly rejected those calls, explicitly choosing freedom over fear. Library board meetings don’t usually attract crowds, media, or protest. But something highly unusual—and extraordinarily encouraging—happened last night in a small town on the New Hampshire/Vermont border.

The drama unfolded in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where dozens of residents attended a library board meeting and spoke passionately about privacy and freedom before a gaggle of reporters and even some out of town activists. People in the room told me the energy was incredible. Some people cried. At the end of the meeting, the crowd that had gathered to passionately discuss issues at the heart of civic action and democracy erupted in cheers, elated at their collective success and lived commitment to the state motto: Live Free or Die.

The question before the public at the meeting last night was whether or not the Kilton Library in Lebanon should implement a Tor middle relay. Doing so would make the library a part of a global network of internet anonymity nodes offering users some measure of security and safety to people living under the terror of despotic regimes and abusive boyfriends alike. Weeks prior, the cops and the feds had managed to pull the plug on the project, a collaboration among the library, the Tor Project, and the Library Freedom Project.

But despite the Feds’ backroom fear mongering, the people of Lebanon, New Hampshire were not scared—and unlike DHS, which was mysteriously nowhere to be found last night, the people did their lobbying in full public view.

Nearly everyone who attended spoke in favor of the library’s plan to participate in Tor’s global internet freedom network. The only people who voiced opposition were the police chief and the town manager. But in the face of overwhelming community support, to include a local newspaper’s editors, even these few opponents were quick to temper their criticism of Tor, stressing that they would never tell the public it couldn’t do something like this if people want to.

People clearly want to. The room was so festive and pro-privacy that at the end of the meeting, the library board appeared unsure of what to do. It was so obvious that for a moment they just looked around. The people had spoken, and they weren’t scared, despite what DHS had told the local police, and what the local police had told the library. The library director stood up and proclaimed: the Tor node will return! The crowd cheered.

There were many remarkable moments during the public testimony. One woman, a library employee originally from Colombia, said that she wished a technology like Tor had existed in her country during a period of extreme repression in the early 2000s. It could have helped people, she said.

Library board chairman Francis Oscadal got philosophical, saying, “With any freedom there is risk. It came to me that I could vote in favor of the good … or I could vote against the bad. I’d rather vote for the good because there is value to this.” Please mark that quote and return to it; it’ll be endlessly relevant.

The Kilton Library and the community of Lebanon, New Hampshire have put the world on notice: privacy isn’t shameful and we don’t have to apologize for wanting to be free. We’d all do well to take heed, and gain some courage from their collective wisdom. Instead of fearing the bad in the world, and reacting based on those fears, we should vote for the good.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.