As The Internet Freedom Project Expands, Snowflake Becomes Snowstorm
In my chat with Serene, an internet freedom activist and former Google Ideas engineer, I ask: “Am I allowed to speak with you right now? Legally?”
“We’re both in the U.S., so yes, I think we’re good,” she answers.
As one of the few tools for accessing blocked and censored information on the web, Serene’s Snowflake is widely used by citizens of oppressive regimes. It is primarily done using Tor, an open-source browser that enables secure, private, and anonymous internet browsing.
Snowflake is one of the few pluggable transports, also known as a “Tor bridge,” currently available for the browser. By making it appear like a user is on a regular video or voice call, the project allows users to circumvent internet censorship.
She is now unveiling Snowstorm, an upgraded version of Snowflake, which Serene claims will be faster, more generalized, and have more features. Snowstorm is fast enough to stream YouTube videos, something previous versions could not do.
The software has been rewritten and reimagined using Rust, and a system-wide client, which demonstrates the software is not Tor-based. As a result, users will have more choice and agency.
Furthermore, Snowstorm has established its own company that will maintain the code and support a full-time team of core developers.
Work on Snowflake started in 2016, which began as a collaboration with Arlo Breault and David Fifield, funded by the Open Tech Fund’s Information Controls Fellowship Program.
In reality, Serene has devoted her entire life to the cause of internet freedom.
Serene learned how to code at the age of nine. As a Bösendorfer-endorsed concert pianist, she also worked with Kanye West on his 2019 opera production “Mary.” But we can save that story for another day.
At a young age, she joined Google, where she became the first engineer at Google Ideas, an internal group dedicated to using technology to help those threatened by conflict, instability, and repression.
It was there that she first began working to circumvent the growing number of internet controls implemented by governments. That first project was uProxy, an early experiment based on WebRTC, the foundation for much of the real-time communication on the internet. She built and demoed uProxy at a Google event on a two-week deadline, which was ultimately a success.
After Serene left Google, she continued her fight for internet freedom by becoming a senior fellow with the Open Tech Fund, with a sponsorship from UC Berkeley.
Fast forward to 2016, where Snowflake was started as a research project. It went on to play a key role in circumventing censorship during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, with Snowflake reporting a corresponding surge in users.
As a result of increased demand and usage, Snowstorm is an attempt 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.”
A snowflake can be used as a “bridge” by internet users in countries with limited access. A broker is running on a third-party server, disguised by domain fronting, making it seem as if it came from a non-restricted service. The broker knows where the snowflakes are and will connect the two, using WebRTC as a peer-to-peer connection.
The new Snowstorm version addresses many of the limitations and challenges faced by Snowflake, including limited bandwidth, system resources, and other factors.
“Forces of censorship try to divide the world,” she said. “Snowstorm is the bridge that can bring humanity together again.”