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2018 ICFP Wrap up

OTF’s fifth class of Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellows was a diverse group comprised of computer scientists, misinformation researchers, network measurement researcher, for example. With the cohort’s fellowships completed, we’d like to highlight these fellows and the accomplishments they achieved during their time as ICFP fellows.

This group completed work on a wide range of projects, including conducting research on information controls developments focused on China, Russia, Egypt and India, improving tools to bolster the automatic identification of misinformation and the underlying tactics being employed and researching security vulnerabilities in VPNs, for example. The ICFP program provides a vehicle for individuals to engage in projects related to repressive, state-imposed internet information controls.

Below, you can find a brief description of each fellow’s area of focus, what they accomplished, and links to related materials where applicable. Over the course of their fellowships, fellows have presented their findings publicly in the form of reports, presentations, and by releasing open source code. In some cases noted below, public reports are forthcoming.

Valentin Weber

Host organization: Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Duration: Six Months

Valentin researched the diffusion of the Russian and Chinese information control models. During his fellowship Valentin co-authored a paper on mobile app store censorship, with a special focus on the availability of VPN apps in China and Russia’s major mobile app stores. The paper finds that despite both countries having restrictive VPN laws, there are still many VPN apps available in Russia and only a handful in China. He summed up the findings in a blogpost for OxPol. His final report defines the Chinese and Russian models of information control and traces the export of filtering/surveillance technology and techniques to 110 countries. In the report he analyses what the resulting benefits of diffusion are for Beijing and Moscow and what impact the export of filtering/surveillance technology and techniques has on citizens across the globe. His final report was presented at the National Endowment for Democracy and in an OTF blog post. The report is available in English, Chinese, and Russian.

Nguyen Phong Hoang

Host organization: Calipr research group at University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Duration: Twelve months

Phong studied the Invisible Internet Project (I2P) with a focus on the network's censorship resistance. The Invisible Internet Project (I2P) is a well-known and widely used anonymity network. I2P can be used by privacy-conscious Internet users to protect their online privacy, or by censored users to bypass censorship. Phong carried out numerous projects to improve the I2P ecosystem. He first built a metrics portal for I2P that provides useful data for other researchers. Following this, Phong published numerous papers identifying where and how access to I2P is blocked around the globe. Finally, he investigated and implemented solutions to make I2P more resistant to blockage. As a result of this work, I2P is now more accessible to end users who need the tool to circumvent Internet censorship and online surveillance. A blog post summarizing all the work completed over the course of the fellowship can be found here.

Marcus Michaelson

Host organization: Hivos

Duration: Twelve months

Marcus worked with Hivos to investigate digital threats against diaspora activists from Egypt, Iran and Syria. The research assessed the methods, motivations and capabilities of state actors targeting human rights defenders and journalists beyond borders. It also examined the impact of these threats on the targeted communities and their strategies of resistance. Marcus’ research reveals that digital technologies are at the heart of this repression against activists living outside their homeland. Tools most often used include online monitoring and surveillance, account and device hacking, aggressive disinformation campaigns, and online publication hacking. The findings were summarized in a blog post on the OTF website. The full paper entitled The Silencing Effect of Digital Transnational Repression was published in coordination with Hivos and can be found here.

Joey Shea

Duration: Twelve months

Joey investigated digital surveillance and censorship in Egypt. She documented network interference during the 2019 Egyptian constitutional referendum and also monitored arrests based on digital expression. Her research situated these technological interventions within the broader social, economic, and political context in Egypt since 2013. She worked with Netblocks to document the censorship of an opposition website during the constitutional referendum. Joey wrote an op-ed arguing against the export of censorship tech to authoritarian regimes and analyzed the economic impacts of Egypt's censorship. She compiled a dataset of 333 digital expression arrests in Egypt from 2011 until 2019 and analyzed the data in the project's final report (released in October 2019 and can be accessed here). She authored two more op-eds (here and here) unpacking Egypt’s multifaceted regime of information controls.

Chinmayi SK

Host organization: Open Observatory of Networking Interference

Duration: Twelve months

This Information Control Fellow worked with OONI-Probe to document internet censorship and surveillance in Manipur, a disputed region of India, and determine the impacts on local marginalized communities with a focus on women in particular. Information on the Manipur region has only recently been available due to the rapid penetration of mobile Internet in recent years. This research was carried out through analysis of network measurements and personal interviews resulting in a report entitled Those Unspoken Thoughts. The project’s outputs offer a deep and comprehensive understanding of the nature and impact of censorship, Internet filtering and surveillance.

Alexei Abrahams

Host organization: Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Duration: Twelve months

Alexei investigated information manipulation on social media in the Arabian Gulf. Combining big data science with regional and language knowledge, Alexei documented how Arabian Gulf states use automation of centrally controlled accounts (bots) and elite social media influencers to alter the political opinions of domestic and foreign audiences. He authored one thought piece and co-authored two academic articles (here and here) and an op-ed analyzing the tactics of Gulf states with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to being quoted in numerous media outlets. A summary of Alexei's research can be found on the OTF blog.

William Tolley

Host organization: International Computer Science Institute, UC Berkeley

Duration: Fourteen months

William focused his fellowship project on researching unexplored vulnerabilities in Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), relied on by end users to safely overcome blocking, that can be exploited by malicious actors. The results of his research highlighted how the websites visited by a VPN user on nearly any platform can be discovered or even hijacked. The vulnerabilities identified in this research were responsibly disclosed and the implementation of mitigations was encouraged. A summary of his work can be found on the OTF blog.

Mahsa Alimardani

Host organization: Oxford Internet Institute

Duration: Nine months

Mahsa Alimardani is an Internet researcher, looking at the intersection of technology and human rights, particularly in Iran. Her fellowship project looked at the effect of information controls on user behaviour in Iran, particularly in their use of social media and messaging platforms using both qualitative and quantitative data. The research is expected to be published in late 2020.

Gabrielle Lim

Host organization: Data & Society

Duration: Twelve months

Gabrielle worked to better conceptualize and map out the influence of disinformation and media manipulation in Malaysia, given recent efforts to limit press freedom and increase online information controls. The project explored how "security threats" can be utilized to enable authoritarian practices and the risks "fake news" can have on freedom of expression and information access when securitized by the state. The paper entitledSecuritize/Counter-Securitize: The Life and Death of Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act" was published in coordination with Data & Society, along with a blog post.

Bekah Overdorf

Host organization: École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Duration: Twelve months

Bekah worked with online social networking data in Central Asia to identify fake accounts and monitor and assess their activities as well as their effect on the overall network. Her background is in studying the effects that machine learning has on privacy and the ways that it can be used to attack private systems or other private information, and, more broadly, studying the effects that technologies have on society and developing technologies to measure and counter these negative externalities. This project focused on the effect that the shift to social media platforms for public discourse has had on what information we have access to and how this is a form of modern censorship. Numerous papers were produced as a result of the project.


The Open Technology Fund (OTF)’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) supports examination into how governments in countries, regions, or areas of OTF’s core focus are restricting the free flow of information, impeding access to the open internet, and implementing censorship mechanisms, thereby threatening the ability of global citizens to exercise basic human rights and democracy. The program supports fellows to work within host organizations that are established centers of expertise by offering competitively paid fellowships for three, six, nine, or twelve months in duration.