The anonymous web is an important topic for all of us interested in information landscapes. Brady Lund is the co-author of the book A Guide to Using the Anonymous Web for Libraries and Information Organizations: Enhancing Patron Privacy and Information Access. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing him. Our interview is below:
LH: Please briefly describe A Guide to Using the Anonymous Web for Libraries and Information Organizations.
BL: A Guide to Using the Anonymous Web for Libraries and Information Organizations provides an accessible, yet thorough, introduction to anonymous web platforms, their value for libraries and information organizations, and legal and policy considerations for providing access to these platforms. It is a library-specific extension of a previous book we authored, Casting Light on the Dark Web: A Guide for Safe Exploration. Unlike that book, this one is geared towards librarians and offers practical steps they can take to ensure that their library successfully integrates access to this technology. We use the term “anonymous web” in this book, as opposed to “dark web” in order to distance our discussion of these platforms from the inherently malicious connotation of the word “dark.”
LH: What sparked your interest in this topic?
BL: Back in 2013, the anonymous web platform Tor gained notoriety due to a website called The Silk Road, which was essentially Amazon for illegal goods and services. This is when talk of the dark web first began to permeate into mainstream discussion, and it carried a decisively negative connotation. Those who regularly use platforms like Tor, though, know the value they bring for promoting privacy and circumventing censorship. It was our interest in objectively communicating both the positives and negatives of anonymous web networks that drove us to pursue our work in this area.
LH: When you were first learning about the anonymous web, what surprised you?
BL: The impenetrability of the anonymous web is quite amazing. Autocratic governments around the world have invested innumerable resources into trying to thwart the network and have failed. The principles behind how the anonymous web operates are highly resistant to attacks.
Another surprising/interesting aspect of the anonymous web is its ease-of-use. One might think that some advanced programming/networking/computer skills are necessary in order to access the anonymous web, but a platform like Tor is really no different in looks or functionality than Firefox. One can download the Tor browser from the project’s website and begin using it right away to securely explore the Internet.
LH: Information environments can rapidly change, did anything change about the anonymous web as you were writing this book that you had to revise?
BL: Yes, the anonymous web, as with all web-based networks, has rapidly evolved. While the basic principles behind the platform remain the same, they must constantly evolve to navigate attempts to censor or shut-down the network. Just in the past few weeks, with the conflict in Ukraine, we have seen an increased emphasis on the value of the anonymous web, as well as challenges to the network’s integrity. In Russia, censorship of traditional and social media has run rampant, while the anonymous web continues to provide access to reliable information from sources like Facebook and the New York Times, both of which have Tor.onion (web) sites. The fact that Tor provides this access has led to renewed attacks on the network. There is also an issue of educating the public about the anonymous web and how to access it. In Russia, the main Tor download site (Torproject.org) is blocked, however there are mirror sites that provide access to Tor downloads. There is an opportunity for information professionals to educate the public about these services. Services like Telegram and WhatsApp are available to communicate information about the anonymous web with individuals in high-censorship nations like Russia and Iran.
LH: What role do you see the anonymous web playing in information organizations in the future?
BL: With an increasing number of challenges towards library materials and attempts to censor free thought, the anonymous web is a key tool for ensuring that fundamental human rights and access to reliable information are preserved. In countries currently facing rampant censorship, the anonymous web offers the ability to circumvent these barriers and communicate with the outside world. In areas of countries like the United States where censorship or threats to privacy have grown, the anonymous web offers the opportunity to access sensitive information without being impeded or tracked. For instance, the anonymous web has a major role in the transgender community in parts of the United States. Libraries that provide access to anonymous web platforms like Tor are ensuring that their fundamental mission—to provide access to reliable information—is not impeded, even if other materials face censorship or privacy vulnerability.
LH: If librarians want to stay up-to-date on the anonymous web, what resources do you recommend?
BL: Though we have published several resources related to the dark web/anonymous web, we are not the only source of valuable information on these platforms. The Library Freedom Project, created by Alison Macrina, provides excellent information and support for adopting Tor in libraries. The Library Freedom Project is directly affiliated with the Tor Project, which does mean that they tend to avoid discussing any of the nuances about potential negatives of the platforms, but they do provide excellent information about the benefits of the platforms. The Tor Project blog (blog.torproject.org) also provides timely information about the Tor Project’s activities.
Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets
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