Uncovering internet censorship

Is the internet really a free space? What limits do we face online? How can we know what websites are banned? Is there censorship on the internet? The “Uncovering internet censorship” panel discussion at the International Journalism Festival 2017 in Perugia shed light on many of these issues.

Two high-profile speakers, members of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), provided insights on the topic and explained different ways people can help them increase control of the right to access information. The OONI project is a global observation network that collects high-quality data to share observations about the various types of internet censorship across the world. Since 2012, they have been monitoring online censorship by collecting data in more than 190 countries. This important background allows them today to provide a very accurate picture about today’s censorship. In the talk, the co-founder and lead software developer of the project, Arturo Filastò, talked about the work their platform does, while, Maria Xynou, expert in internet censorship, explained real cases the organisation identified around the world last year.

The OONI platform bases all its results on the analysis of all the data collected by various users of the free software tests they designed (OONI’s software tests). Through them, they are able to measure “different forms of online censorship” such as blocking websites, blocking instant messaging apps or detecting middleboxes intercepting connections. Their findings could be used by lawyers, activists and journalists to show evidence of internet censorship, Xynou said, and obtain detailed data about cases across the world.

In Brazil, for example, WhatsApp was blocked in two different occasions during 2015 and 2016. Brazil is an example of authorities asking companies to disclose information and the companies deny to do so accepting the consequences of not doing it, said the panellists. According to them, this case was easy to detect with their tests. However, one of the problems they face is that not all the irregular cases of online access information could be considered “censorship”. By OONI, censorship only applies when there is an “intentional blocking of information” as the ones they report in their website.

According to the results of their software tests, authorities in Uganda ordered the blocking of different social media websites during the 2016 general election campaign. In that particular case, Xynou explained, censorship was conducted for “political motivations” and also implemented differently amongst internet providers. “Orange blocked only Facebook and Twitter whereas Smile Telecom blocked also WhatsApp” she said.

Another example of censorship identified by OONI project occurred in Ethiopia in 2016. The case appeared during a wave of protests against the elite that left about 800 killed by security forces, according to Amnesty International. Ethiopian authorities illegally blocked access to social media and news websites in an attempt to crush dissent. On the same year, in Gambia, internet access was blocked the weekend before the general election vote. Other examples of censorship come from Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia.

The co-founder of the project, Filastò, said that any of these results wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of the volunteers and invited the public to be involved in the project. “You can do the same, you can also help us to increase transparency on internet censorship throughout the world” by downloading and installing the free software. People can also be involved by installing the ooniprobe on Raspberry Pi device or downloading the OONI mobile app in their mobile phone. However, both panel speakers alerted that potential risks might be involved with running this software. Users haven’t experienced any problems so far, but precaution must be considered. When using such tool, anyone monitoring your internet activity will know that you have ooniprobe – and also issues with authorities – the use of ooniprobe might be viewed as illegal or anti-government activity.

Beside these concerns, the speakers said that they are proud to say that they are able to provide one of the most accurate pictures of the internet censorship across the world. From their results, it seems that the Eastern part of the world practices more online censorship than Western countries, however, “we don’t think that is the case”, Xynou said. “It was easy for us to detect censorship in this part of the world, but it doesn’t mean that censorship is not happening in the West, it just means it is more covert.”