Why I’m a Tor Relay Operator

It’s over 3 weeks into 2014 and most of you have failed at your new years resolutions. It’s okay so have I. My resolution was to make and accomplish at least 1 goal a week, thats 52 resolutions! My first goal was to setup a tor relay. Which seems easy enough. I use Linux exclusively and documentation is readily available. Still here I am, 3 weeks into the new year and no Tor Relay. Why?

It’s not for a lack of trying. Within days of the new year (despite getting sick almost immediately) I began doing some research. The technical aspects were very easy to grasp. My concerns centered around legal repercussions.  In searching for answers I was lead to the infamous balls of steal thread.

“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.”

Benjamin Franklin

In the balls of steal thread a poster talks about his house being raided due to some of the illicit traffic leaving his Tor exit node. Fortunately I don’t need “balls of steal” to run a relay. An exit node and a relay serve two very different functions. A relay sends encrypted data to other relays as it bounces through the Tor network until the packet reaches an exit node. Upon reaching the exit node the packets are decrypted and the data is sent to its destination IP and vice-versa. I’m only concerned (at this point) with running a relay. So what’s my problem?

This is a question of ethics. While I support privacy and freedom of speech. I don’t support some traffic which goes over the Tor network. Despite Tor’s use by political dissidents in places like Iran and China; Many vial things flow through it. The worst of all (in my opinion) being underage pornography. Yuck, terrible.

I was a bit confounded by this dilemma. I began talking to friends and co-workers regarding my conundrum. Many said “of course you can’t contribute to that knowing what kind of things its used for” with far fewer encouraging me to support Tor. After thinking about this for sometime, the idea and the goal began slipping from my mind. Over the next week or two the idea would pop back into my head briefly only to meet the same philosophical gridlock that had put the idea to rest earlier.

Then, something changed. Perhaps it was one of many articles regarding Edward Snowden and the NSA. Maybe it was the Presidents most recent speech on the matter. That something told me to go ahead and contribute another relay to the network. So how did I reconcile these competing ideas?

Take the initial argument against. One should not contribute to something if that something is used for evil, even if that something is also used for good. This reasoning is a fairly  reactionary approach to thinking and living. It’s anti-enlightenment. It’s the kind of thinking that helped keep humanity backwards for a long time (and still does).

We could easily apply this argument to freedom of speech and since speech is both good and bad, then by that logic we should throw away free speech. And why not privacy? If a person has privacy, then things we disagree with can be done in private. So should we rid our society of privacy as well? Where does this line of reasoning stop? Should we halt our use of the Internet, roads, money etc..?

I don’t want to throw either of these rights away. I’m happily running a Tor Bridge Relay as of this posting. Here are some simple steps to join me.

“Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”

Albert Einstein