Using a virtual private network for your web surfing is Internet Security 101. But VPN’s are not just for torrenting files without your ISP knowing; they are also an integral part of breaking through government censorship in countries where human rights are squashed. The problem is that commercial VPN’s are easy for governments to block and are pretty expensive for people in developing nations.
Jigsaw, the Alphabet-owned tech incubator that focuses on human rights issues, is hoping to change all that. Jigsaw created the app Outline, which will offer a DIY solution to commercial VPN issues. The company promises that creating a custom virtual private network using Outline will be easy enough to do in minutes. Best of all, it will be very inexpensive or even free, depending on you or your organization’s needs.
Normally, if you need a VPN, you sign up for a commercial VPN service. When your VPN is activated, all your browsing activity gets encrypted as it bounces to some far away server and back again to its original destination. While VPN companies are usually secure, the best ones are pricey, especially if you need multiple users and access to multiple servers.
But with Outline, you create the VPN yourself, and only you control it. If you have a server, you simply install the free Outline software and use the setup wizard to create your VPN. If you don’t have a server, you can spend as little as $5 a month to connect to a cloud server instead. The cloud server is a little riskier, but Jigsaw is not really going for an infallible system. Rather, it’s looking to give a better alternative to people who have few options.
In countries like China where the Great Firewall blocks access to huge swaths of the online world from its citizens, it’s difficult for people to simply sign up for a VPN. Even if they somehow do connect with a company, it’s only a matter of time before the government shuts off access to the company’s servers entirely, making the service useless.
But if people could make their own VPN’s, it would be much harder for the government to shut it down, and that’s what Jigsaw is trying to do with Outline. As an example, a Swedish NGO called Civil Rights Defenders uses Outline to empower journalists, lawyers, and members of LGBT communities around the world to get online and expose human rights issues.
The Outline app is open source, and anyone can check its integrity on the GitHub page where it’s hosted. However, even Jigsaw itself admits that this is not the ultimate security solution. In the FAQ on the Outline site, it says the program is “not an anonymity tool,” but instead an app that helps you get past censorship.
More and more people are viewing access to the internet as a human right, so the ability to use cheap and simple VPN technology to empower people around the world is incredible. To give the service a try yourself, click here to visit the Outline site. And to read more in-depth about how Outline works and what Jigsaw hopes to achieve, check out this article from Wired.