OTF Concept Note

19 Oct 2017

What is your idea?

Emerald Onion is a recently founded ISP/community non-profit organization based in Seattle seeded by a Tor Servers grant and personal donations. Our goal is to expand the privacy community by lowering the cost and learning curve for community organizations in the US to operate infrastructure.

Existing organizations in this space, Calyx and Riseup, have succeeded in rapidly becoming focal points for the community, but are inherently difficult to scale and are most effective in their local geographic communities. Thus, while Riseup has excelled at providing technical software, there is no easy path to establishing similar organizations. We want to change that!

In beginning the process of establishing ourselves, we have been documenting every step of the way. We are already running multiple unfiltered Tor exit nodes, and have both legally vetted abuse letters and educational material for law enforcement published. Now, we want to take this knowledge and export it to other communities. In particular, we want to focus on areas near Internet Exchange Points that are in at least 49 metro locations around the US, which can provide economical pricing and good connectivity for Internet traffic. We hope to spur wider deployment of Tor, onion services, and surrounding privacy technologies by helping other local groups follow our path.

Part of this mission is becoming a focal point for privacy operations work ourselves. Working with researchers at Berkeley, we are contributing to easier handling of abuse complaints. With academics in the Tor community, we are piloting new exit strategies to limit the impact of censorship. With the open source community, we are increasing platform diversity through the use and documentation of HardenedBSD as an alternative software stack. Our trajectory as an organization will include partnering with these organizations to improve usage and deployability, education of other network operators, and increasing our network presence and capacity.

What are your goals / long-term effects?

Our goal is that most major communities in the US have local organizations focused on operating privacy technology. Hackerspaces today are a mixed bag, and are often centered around physical rather than digital creation. Despite the presence of major IXPs, there are many urban centers today without community-driven organizations working to bolster privacy. We envision providing the groundwork and enthusiasm to support a network of ISPs around the country that can rectify this situation. Getting these entities in place will be important underlying infrastructure for future decentralized and federated networks to follow the model of Tor today.

Emerald Onion will directly evangelize operational best practices as it matures as a community organization and fits into the Seattle privacy community. To take advantage of Seattle’s position as one of the largest exchange points in the world, Emerald Onion will actively seek out peering agreements and aim to transit a significant amount of Tor traffic. Through our ISP operations, we hope for two primary longer term effects: First, that we are able to disseminate knowledge of peering agreements to make it significantly easier for other entities to understand how to enter into these negotiations. Second, that we can help Tor and other privacy enhancing networks gain capacity, reliability, and strategies for resilience to censorship. These technologies have focused on their software properties, but there are significant operational and networking challenges that need to be solved in tandem. We believe entities like Emerald Onion are the right complement to help privacy technologies succeed.

How will you do it?

Concretely, Emerald Onion will work to bring at least 10 new, independent, Privacy-focused ISPs into existence within the next 12 months. We will also speak in conferences, and use our existing communication pathways to advertise and publish our work. We will work to find other supporters and help them establish their own organizations. In addition, we will work to make shared support networks, like legal funds, peering databases, and abuse systems to be more accessible to these community groups.

Specifically, we will focus on the following areas of capacity:

  1. Funding and organizational stability strategies
  2. Nonprofit ISP incorporation setup and management
  3. Data center co-location setup and management
  4. ARIN registration and AS and IP scope management
  5. IP transit setup and management
  6. BGP setup and management
  7. Peering agreement setup and management
  8. Legal response setup and management

To stabilize ourselves as a focal point of the Seattle privacy community, Emerald Onion will continue to develop both its own sustainability model, and its infrastructure.

We expect to receive 501c3 status by the end of the year, and have already begun soliciting donations for our general operations. We have had initial success in approaching local members of the community to contribute the funds for one relay worth of cost in exchange for “naming rights” of that node. We believe direct community contributions can provide sustainability, and will complement this income stream with grant funding for growth.

We will also continue to increase our network presence to improve our fault tolerance and gain access to more network peers. Higher capacity will allow us to provide incubation for a larger range of privacy enhancing technologies.

Who is it for?

Emerald Onion is not just for the ~60 million monthly Tor users or the Seattle privacy community. We are not just a testing ground for encountering and solving operational issues in the deployment of privacy technologies. Emerald Onion is strategically developing as a model steward of privacy networks that is focused on quality and integrity. Our actions and relationships further legitimize Tor within communities that operate the backbones of the Internet and will help normalize the use of Tor for business-driven service providers. We will continue to be an inspiration for community groups and other ethically-conscious ISPs alike.

Emerald Onion’s day-to-day work at present focuses on existing and new Tor router operators, who with the organizations that they create will immediately impact public perception. In Emerald Onion’s short existence, we have made direct, personal connections with at least 50 professional network administrators, datacenter operators, and Internet service providers. Imagine that happening in every major IXP community around the United States.

Emerald Onion has paid for professional legal services, and has already published our verified Legal FAQ and abuse complaint responses that are valid within the United States. Similarly, the organization is working with Academics to better understand the operational reality of abuse complaints, and to understand opportunities for making use of the IP space. These services benefit the larger privacy community both operationally, and as an incubator for projects.

What is the existing community?

The Tor relay community is already strong, but lacks strong US-based advocacy for growth. In Europe, TorServers.net has evolved into a grant-giving organization, which is able to provide advice and financial support to help new relays get started, but is not well positioned to support US-based relays. In Canada, Coldhak runs a valuable relay, but has not attempted to export its knowledge to external entities.

In the US, the largest relay presences come from Riseup.net and Calyx networks. Riseup is focused on services like email and VPNs in tandem with important education. This is valuable work, but does not extend to directly advocating for new groups to enter the ISP space. Calyx is supported through a cellular ISP model focusing on end-users but does not focus on supporting new relay operators.

Emerald Onion aims to fill this gap through direct advocacy to guide and support new relay operators and encourage the existence and creation of privacy supporting entities in a diverse set of IXPs around the country.

Complementary Efforts?

The Tor Project itself provides a basic level of support for new entities, particularly with technical support. In addition to a wide-reaching and engaging community, the presence of the Tor-relays mailing list provides a valuable community-wide support network between operators. The EFF has been a long-time supporter of the legal aspects of relay operation, and has helped with several legal papers supporting helping to establish the legal protections of Tor exit operation, along with providing counsel when new legal issues arise. It remains the case that new entities establishing Tor exit nodes in the US face thousands of dollars of legal fees to properly prepare themselves with the needed form letters for abuse and a tricky navigation of legal guidelines to establish themselves as legal entities with the authority to respond to complaints without fear of retribution.

Emerald Onion hopes to fill these gaps by making it easier for others by defining clear direction, freely published in the public domain, so that new operators don’t need to duplicate work that we’ve already performed. Building a shared legal defense fund and sharing how to navigate data center costs and contracts will allow groups to form with much less risk or uncertainty.

Why is it needed?

In building Emerald Onion so far, we have already found that many of the steps we are taking are undocumented, or rely on verbally communicated lore. That situation is not sustainable, and cannot scale or significantly improve the current state of the world.

More organizations are needed that focus on Internet privacy the same way hackerspaces have focused on hardware and technical development. Internet issues are inherently rooted in being part of the Internet and that barrier has so far been a high hurdle for community groups. We believe that this hurdle needs to be lower.

Without active development of these entities, we will continue to see even more centralization of the Internet and continued erosion of neutrality. Retaining a community presence in Internet operations is a key underlying infrastructure that we strongly believe has the potential to change the future development of the Internet.