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[liberationtech] dumb question

Adam Fisk a at
Tue Sep 14 23:30:29 PDT 2010

All great points, Nathan. I think the example of the Tibetans using
every new service is a useful example. There a constant tradeoff in
this space between anonymity and performance, and it's extremely
difficult to do both well. To me, Tor is the gold standard for
anonymity, and, as you say, Roger, Nick, and the rest of the Tor team
have made tremendous strides in terms of performance and usability.
There is a huge segment of users in the censored world, however, as we
can see in the Tibetans you've been in contact with, who are
periodically more concerned with simply accessing blocked web sites
than in getting out politically sensitive and even personally
dangerous information. That's not to value one over the other, but
rather to address Xeni's question. It's a matter of using the right
tool for the job. Tor is a better anonymity tool, and I'd argue
UltraSurf and straight VPNs are better at pure circumvention.

The key is not to confuse the two. Haystack is such a disaster because
it purported to be an anonymity tool but really was just a
semi-functional circumvention tool. Of the two, that's not the one to
get wrong.

Maybe the best answer is a piece of software that seamlessly provides
anonymity, likely just using Tor, whenever a user is *publishing
something* while using a tool that performs better for more typical
web browsing when users are consuming content?

I'd also argue there's a sweet spot somewhere between the academic and
business worlds. The business community at its best offers
breathtaking usability, rapid development, etc, sometimes at the
expense of theoretical rigor and security, and at its worst companies
that last a few months with marketing budgets three times the size of
their technology budgets. The academic world at its best offers
algorithmic and architectural breakthroughs like Tor and at its worse
useless tools eating up free cycles on Planet Lab that never do
anything useful theoretically or not. There's clearly some middle
ground, and I'd argue it needs more populating.

OK, now I've been writing way too long. Just like with web browsers,
Xeni, having more tools to choose from is a huge asset.

Think of Haystack as IE 6, but where people could die.


On Tue, Sep 14, 2010 at 9:02 PM, Nathan Freitas <nathan at> wrote:
> Actually, a very good question, Xeni.
> I think there is an increasing trend towards the startup competitive
> attitude vs. the open academic commons in the area of technology meant
> to make the world a better place. The startup mentality has been
> encouraged more and more as a way to approach the solving problems for
> the NGO/human rights world in a smarter/faster/cheaper/agile approach.
> However, it also brings along the baggage of a tendency towards being
> closed, and an affinity for high risk and high failure rates.
> Unfortunately in this realm, failure has the potential to be much more
> catastrophic.
> The startup project creates a new implementation of something because
> there is an opportunity for personal gain from it or a window to grab
> some advantage. The academic approach (generally) only creates new
> implementations when there is an obvious way to improve upon an existing
> system, and is required to reference previous work on the subject
> through academic papers and presentations. The former is about "winning"
> and the latter is about "improving upon". Lots of the former like to
> think they are the latter in terms of capability/insight/functionality
> without putting in the years of work that folks like Nick, Roger and the
> Tor team have.
> Putting my activist hat on, I know there are still usability questions
> about Tor from normal users out there, and increasingly difficulties for
> users from within China, for instance, to use Tor at all. I know that
> Tor is actively engaged in this fight, and has spent a huge amount of
> time on usability as of late, with the Tor Browser Bundle offerings.
> However, users are impatient, and I receive emails, skype msgs, etc on a
> weekly basis from Tibetans excited about some new proxy service or
> gateway they are trying to use to free their interwebs (the most recent
> being yet another opaque proxy service, -
> They ask "is it safe to use?" and even when I give my stock answer
> "probably not", they tend to use it anyway. Their hunger for access
> outweighs their fear of retribution, and their ability to judge risk is
> clouded by their inability to accurately weigh one solution vs. another.
> Ultimately, this phenomenon is taken advantage of by new entrants to
> this field looking for an opportunities to differentiate and establish
> themselves, whether they are conscious of it or not.
> +n
> On 9/14/10 11:07 PM, Xeni Jardin wrote:
>> About Haystack. I keep wondering, as I did when I first heard about this in 2009:
>> Why bother creating something new from scratch when other, well-established services that seek to accomplish these same goals -- namely Tor, for my money -- already exist?
>> Serious question, stupid though it may sound.
>> What was Haystack attempting to accomplish that Tor has not accomplished, with years of very hard work from a comparatively large pool of developers and supporters? Am I missing something? Why did 2 guys think they could beat that, and more to the point, why did they feel they needed to?
>> XJ
>> --------------------------
>> Xeni Jardin
>> Editor and Partner, Boing Boing blog
>> Host and Executive Producer, Boing Boing Video
>> voicemail-by-email: 323-843-XENI (9364)
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Adam Fisk | |

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