Dec 18, 2014 · 2 minutes

Back in July, Pando's Yasha Levine wrote about the close funding ties between Tor and the US government. Shortly afterwards, all hell broke loose.

As Yasha wrote later, and I've followed up since, some members of the Tor community responded to our reporting through what appeared to be a smear campaign. Yasha was accused of being a CIA plant, other Pando writers were called rapists, fascists and worse (!) and one prominent Tor developer accused us of recruiting a secret army of "sock puppet" Twitter trolls to hound her to death. A freelancer for the Guardian, who also happened to be a Tor supporter, wrote a story repeating some of those claims, causing the newspaper to issue an embarrassing retraction and one editor to describe the incident as a "fuck up." The LA Review of Books published a similar piece from another activist, prompting yet another correction.

From where we sat, the false claims and planted media stories looked less like honest mistakes than a deliberate campaign to discredit our reporters and our reporting on Tor. What we didn't know was whether Tor's leadership supported the smear campaign, either actively or passively. As Quinn Norton noted yesterday, Tor's executive director Andrew Lewman had remained oddly silent on the subject. Why, we wondered, would Lewman not at least confirm that Tor didn't seriously believe Pando was running a secret social media campaign to harass its developers?

Yesterday Lewman finally broke his silence. At his suggestion, he and I had a wide-ranging, and productive phone conversation in which Lewman insisted that, while he strongly disagrees with our reporting on Tor, his organization had no part in a campaign to attack Pando's reporters. Further, he confirmed that he had seen absolutely no evidence to suggest that anyone connected with Pando has harassed Tor developers or supporters. Simply put, whatever fight is going on in social media between Tor supporters and critics was not orchestrated by Tor's management or anyone at Pando.

We ended the call agreeing on two important points: First that both Tor and Pando understand the value of investigative reporting. And second that there is an important distinction between critical journalism and social media harassment: we both continue to support the former and condemn the latter.

As Lewman summed it up in an email after our call:

The Tor Project believes in transparency and giving everyone the opportunity to fully review our financial records source code, design documents, open tasks, bug fixes, and research reports. We encourage the general public to conduct their own review to assess the safety and trustworthiness of our research and development. We also believe in holding open, thoughtful dialogue that is constructive and mutually respectful. We believe our 10 year track record speaks for itself but certainly we welcome feedback from all stakeholders including media, such as Pando. The sharing of ideas helps us maintain a stronger Tor network.
Clearly Pando still has serious concerns about Tor's funding and, speaking personally, I don't think Lewman fully understands why those funding sources are problematic for a group that purports to help users avoid government surveillance at home and abroad. Our critical reporting on that subject will continue. Likewise, I fully expect Tor and its supporters to turn that same critical lens back on us.

But critical isn't a synonym for abusive: Anyone who thinks they're helping either Tor or Pando by hurling abuse online is actually just poisoning the debate for everyone. That needs to stop so we can all get back to work.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]