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Prizes for Most Innovative Digital Rights Projects To Be Unveiled Monday

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, December 7 2012

As this dramatic account of the beating of a Syrian protestor attests, sometimes dissidents' devices can betray them even when their comrades will not.

Similar stories are playing out across the globe, and New York City-based digital rights group Access is keenly aware of all this. So it's devoting itself to developing and promoting technologies to protect individuals' ability to speak freely and to organize politically. On Monday evening, the group will hand out $20,000 each in prizes to the five most innovative technology and media projects designed to help people to freely communicate, tell stories and organize themselves. The awards categories: "Blackout Resilience," "Making Crypto Easy;" "Freedom of Expression;" "Grassroots Technology," and "Facebook."

This is the first time the group has awarded such prizes, but it won't be the last, said Access' Executive Director Brett Solomon in an interview. The group intends to make the prize-awarding event an annual event. The group first announced the project in June and eventually received 300 applications from 66 countries. A panel of 13 judges from the worlds of technology, security, digital activism and social media evaluated the projects' with several criteria in mind: How likely were the projects likely to become reality? How sustainable and scalable are they, and how many people would they affect? How much of an impact would they likely have? And, how new is the idea?

Solomon said that there wasn't any unanimity among the judges on who should win in each category; extensive discussions took place before they finally agreed.

A glance at the finalists, at least, shows why that might have been the case. Many of the projects look intriguing.

For example, the "Facebook" category awards innovative apps being developed on the platform. One of them proposes to create a mobile reporting system that integrates an interactive voice response system with a mobile Facebook app to enable citizen reporting from the remoter parts of North East India.

Another project from the New America Foundation in the Grassroots Technology category wants to use Facebook to enable account holders to provide secure Internet connections to activists in countries where online communications are being surveilled.

Yet another, called Project Gulliver, hopes to develop software to defend civil society groups from DDOS attacks. These are just a few of the ideas that the judges had to make calls on.

At a time when the United Nations just approved a new networking standard that could enable countries' governments to easily eavesdrop on everything that flows over the Internet, Access' awards are timely. It'll be interesting to see which projects ultimately win on Monday, as well as to hear about the judges' reasoning behind the decisions that they ultimately made.