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N.H. Public Library Reconsiders Support For Anonymous Internet Network Tor


Tor is the name of an Internet network that allows people to communicate anonymously. It relies on layers of computers all over the world to hide the identity of its users. A public library in Lebanon, N.H., recently added one of its servers to the Tor network. It's believed to be the first U.S. Public Library to do so. Peter Biello of New Hampshire Public Radio sent this report on the local reaction to that move.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting) Privacy matters. Privacy matters.

PETER BIELLO, BYLINE: Outside the Lebanon Public Library yesterday, a group of children held up signs and shouted at passing cars. Their parents and other protesters nearby gathered with the same message. Public libraries should host a Tor relay. About 40 people gathered in the library's basement.

ALISON MACRINA: I'm going to tell you a little bit about what Tor does and who uses it and why libraries are the right location for it. So...

BIELLO: Alison Macrina is with the Library Freedom Project, a group that promotes intellectual freedom at libraries. She says Tor is essentially a web browser, but it's not like the one that came with your PC.

MACRINA: Tor works by bouncing your traffic to a network of relays, which is what we asked Kilton Library to run back in July.

BIELLO: That made the library one link in the Tor chain. The more links there are worldwide, the stronger the network. After the Kilton Library's relay node went live this summer, the Department of Homeland Security raised concerns with local police. DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer says while Tor is legal, it enables illegal activity.

SHAWN NEUDAUER: Where you would get in trouble is if you're going to use it for illegal purposes such as trading in child pornography or using it to sell drugs or buy drugs.

BIELLO: Neudauer says DHS didn't tell library officials to shut off the relay, but they did anyway. Support for the Tor relay at last night's meeting was universal among those who spoke up. They wanted it turned back on because of its legal uses. They argue that Tor can help victims of domestic abuse or people living under oppressive regimes communicate without being monitored. When the library's board decided to turn the relay node back on, everybody cheered.


BIELLO: Lee Sussman says he's proud of his town.

LEE SUSSMAN: You know, I'd much rather be a member of a community that is getting behind personal freedoms and personal responsibility and liberty than to be one who's so afraid of the potential downsides that we neglect to do what we can do in this.

BIELLO: Alison Macrina says this decision is a big public statement about freedom.

MACRINA: We think that this is going to engender even more support, even more relays. And Kilton is standing at the top of that pyramid, so we're just totally thrilled by this.

BIELLO: Both library board members and attendees said they understood the good and bad parts of Tor. But the potential good was too important to ignore. Lebanon's IT librarian, Chuck McAndrew.

CHUCK MCANDREW: We know that a lack of privacy and surveillance has a chilling effect on intellectual freedom. We care about the right to read, and in today's digital era, the right to read doesn't just mean physical books on our shelves.

BIELLO: McAndrew says being a librarian is all about providing access to information for all people anywhere in the world. And this is one easy way a small library in New Hampshire can do that. For NPR News, I'm Peter Biello in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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