The complaints about Facebook are myriad.
But every now and then a snippet comes along that reminds us that we have never seen anything like the connectivity achieved by the world’s preeminent social network, and that this connectivity can actually be a force for good.
Facebook yesterday announced that more than a million people are using it through Tor, a service that allows people to remain anonymous while using the internet.
It’s a part of the internet that is often referred to as the “dark web” because it isn’t indexed by search engines. It can be used for the most nefarious of purposes, such as child pornography and human trafficking, but it also comes in handy when you, say, live under a totalitarian dictatorship. It’s no coincidence that the use of Tor is highest in countries with the most oppressive political regimes. One expert says it has become important in places like Uzbekistan and North Korea, where political repression is highest.
“There is evidence to suggest that at extreme levels of repression, Tor does provide a useful tool to people in those circumstances to do things that they otherwise would not be able to do,” says Eric Jardine, research fellow at the Canadian-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Facebook says it wants to make it as easy as possible for people to access its offering anonymously, and has in fact built tools to do so.
“People who choose to communicate over Tor do so for a variety of reasons related to privacy, security and safety,” says Facebook’s Alec Muffett. “As we’ve written previously it’s important to us to provide methods for people to use our services securely – particularly if they lack reliable methods to do so. This is why in the last two years we built the Facebook onion site and onion-mobile site, helped standardise the “.onion” domain name, and implemented Tor connectivity for our Android mobile app by enabling connections through Orbot.”
Tor, an acronym for The Onion Routing Project, blocks access to any individual user’s location by directing traffic through a free, worldwide volunteer network consisting of thousands of relays that encrypt and re-encrypt data multiple times. The software launched more than a decade ago, but gained notoriety more recently because it became a key tool to those involved in Arab Spring protests.
In early 2011, the number of Egyptians accessing the internet via Tor increased five-fold after protests broke out on January 25 of that year. The Mubrarek government had routinely surveilled and arrested bloggers who were critical of it.
“People are concerned and some understand the risk of network traffic analysis,” said security expert Jacob Appelbaum. “They’re using Tor for that reason and more. Probably Tor plays only a small part for only a few thousand people. I’d like to think it’s an important part and hopefully they will use it to stay safe against this violent tyranny.”
Below: The Hidden Internet – Exploring The Deep Web