SOPA, Tor, FlashProxy

By now, you've probably heard of the “Stop Online Piracy Act”, a doublespeakish attempt to permit massive censorship of the Internet by private corporations and shady government agencies without oversight or dispute in the USA. Under SOPA, it would become a felony to even link to a site that has been censored, and censorship would occur at the financial level (akin to theillegal financial blockade on and the DNS level (i.e. domain names would cease to work).

I subscribe to the view that, while combating such attempts through political and legal channels is essential, there must be another current of resistance in the form of practical effort. And the best two efforts I've seen so far are Tor (The Onion Router), a secure and anonymising routing system that protects the identity and location of web users while enabling them to access otherwise censored content, and a grassroots effort by reddit users to assemble a list of IP addresses for websites at risk of censorship in the USA. Indeed, I've added a slightly altered version of this list in my “Links” section, which I will probably expand with some static IPs matching my favourite DIYbio sites in due course.

Tor is a tremendously sophisticated way for people to access censored content and to preserve their identities as they do so, but Tor is itself susceptible to censorship by forbidding users access to the Tor network in the first place. In order to avoid this, Tor users provide “bridge relays”, entry nodes which can allow access to the network without appearing on an easily censored list of relays. However, censors have become more sophisticated at detecting and rapidly banning bridge relays, so more effort is needed.

A promising new approach appeared recently in the form of browser-powered, transient “Flash-Proxies”, which are fired up as users browse webpages with Flash Proxies embedded within them and redirect censored users to Bridge Relays in a way that is hard to detect and censor.

The beauty of this approach is that browsing web users become transient proxies for access to Tor relays as they browse, clicking in-and-out of the proxy network as they browse around. It would be extremely challenging to censor these Flash Proxies without censoring broad IP address ranges and crippling a country's network access to anything.

The system isn't perfect and it still has a few weak points, but it is already ready for testing and contribution. To this end, I have embedded a Flash-Proxy into the sidebar of; while you have been reading this, in all likelihood your browser has been acting as a Flashproxy. Did you notice? Probably not. It's that little “I support Internet Freedom” icon on the right. If you object, you can disable flash while visiting, or disable “iframe” elements using something like the NOSCRIPT plugin for Firefox (or even specifically ban the FlashProxy plugin using the same).

So there you have it. The reason I've been discussing censorship on a biotech site is to inform you that you, my visitors (however few you may be), are now complicit in preventing Internet censorship for so long as you remain on my site. Thank you for that, and I hope you don't mind having done so.

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