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Award Project Hopes To Enable Facebook Users To Become Online Freedom Fighters

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, December 11 2012

Brian Duggan, a technologist at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., wants to use Facebook, the network under fire in some quarters for its refusal to allow anonymous users or even to permit people to use a pseudonym, to enable anonymous speech for anyone in the world.

Duggan is developing a Facebook application that account holders could use to donate their IP address to the cause of anonymous speech. Their use of the app, Duggan says, would allow people to communicate anonymously online.

Thanks to a $20,000 award that the digital rights group Access in New York City bestowed to the project Monday evening, Duggan is going to be able in upcoming months to develop his idea along with David Fifield, a Stanford student getting his master's degree in computer science theory. It's one of eight projects that each won $20,000. One round of the $20,000 was split among four groups outside of the United States.

Duggan hopes to use the money to develop a Facebook app based on software Fifield created, called Flash Proxy. The software enables users of the Tor Network to get around firewalls blocking access to Tor. Tor bounces Internet traffic all over the world through a secured network until pushing it back out onto the normal Internet and from that "exit node" to its destination, thus concealing the locations of Tor users.

Right now, people who want to use Flash Proxy have to go to specific Web pages and keep those open, in so doing donating their IP addresses to people who use them to access Tor in defiance of otherwise difficult-to-penetrate firewalls. Flash Proxy acts as a matchmaker between ordinary computer users wanting to donate their IP addresses and people who want to circumvent blocks against access to the Tor network. With Duggan's upgrade, Facebook users would have to install the app on their account to donate their address, and people who want to access the Tor network where it's blocked would have to download Flash Proxy as an application on their desktop computer.

By making it a Facebook app, Duggan thinks he can help the privacy-enhancing software go viral, and encourage more people to donate their computer resources to those who need it in places like China and the Middle East.

"The real goal is to encourage people who are already using Facebook to make [Flash Proxy] a social application, to encourage people who value privacy who are already using Facebook," Duggan told techPresident.

Duggan fully understands the irony of using Facebook to promote the use of Flash Proxy, but he sees it as a provocation to get citizens living in the freer parts of the world to better appreciate their own liberties, and then to use that appreciation to help those who aren't so lucky.

So far, Duggan has developed a proof of concept of his idea, which was developed as part his work at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute -- the group that brought the world the idea of "the Internet in a suitcase."

He's hoping to use the money to build out physical infrastructure, and to organize a cadre of volunteers to write more code to make the idea available to the general public.