As the Internet Freedom Project expands, a snowflake becomes a blizzard
back in my chat room QuietInternet freedom activist and former Google Ideas engineer, I ask.
“We’re both in the US, so yeah, I think we’re good,” he replies.
As one of the few tools to access blocked and censored information on the Internet, Serene’s Snowflake is widely used by citizens of oppressive regimes. It is mainly done through Tor, an open source browser that enables secure, private and anonymous Internet browsing.
Snowflake is one of the few pluggable transports, also known as Tor Bridge, currently available for the browser. By pretending the user is in a normal video or voice call, the project allows users to bypass internet censorship.
He is now revealing Snowstorm, an upgraded version of Snowflake that Serene claims will be faster, more generalizable, and have more features. Snowstorm is fast enough to stream YouTube videos, which previous versions couldn’t do.
The software has been rewritten and refactored using Rust and the system client, indicating that the software is not Tor-based. As a result, users will have more choice and agency.
Furthermore, Snowstorm has created its own company to maintain the code and support a full-time team of core developers.
Work on Snowflake began in 2016 as a collaboration with Arlo Breault and David Fifield, funded by the Open Tech Fund’s Information Controls Fellowship program.
In fact, Seren, who is also an advisor to the World Foundation for Ethical Data, has dedicated his entire life to the cause of Internet freedom.
Seren learned to code at the age of nine. As a Bösendorfer-certified concert pianist, she also worked with Kanye West on his 2019 production of the opera Mary. But we can save that story for another day.
As a young man, he joined Google, where he became the first engineer for Google Ideas, an internal group dedicated to using technology to help those threatened by conflict, instability and oppression.
It was there that he first began working to circumvent the increasing amount of Internet surveillance by governments. That was the first project uProxy:, an early experiment based on WebRTC, the foundation of most real-time communications on the Internet. He built and demoed uProxy at a Google event under a two-week deadline, which ultimately succeeded.
After Seren left Google, he continued his fight for Internet freedom by becoming a senior fellow at the Open Tech Fund, sponsored by UC Berkeley.
Fast forward to 2016, where Snowflake began as a research project. It continued to play a key role in circumventing censorship during the Ukraine-Russia conflict, with Snowflake reporting a corresponding increase in users.
As a result of growing demand and usage, Snowstorm has attempted to improve the platform’s user experience. It relies on volunteers living in countries with open Internet access, such as the United States, as “snowflakes”.
Snowflake can be used as a “bridge” by Internet users in countries with limited access. The broker runs on a third-party server with a masked domain fronting that makes it look like it came from an uncapped service. The broker knows where the snowflakes are and will connect the two using WebRTC as a peer connection.
The new version of Snowstorm addresses many of the limitations and challenges faced by Snowflake, including limited bandwidth, system resources, and other factors.
“The forces of censorship are trying to divide the world,” he said. “A blizzard is the bridge that can bring humanity back together.”