It has been a crucial year in the fight for internet freedom. While global internet freedom continues to decline as repressive governments enact increasingly deleterious measures to undermine the rights to free expression and access to information, more and more citizens around the world are utilizing tools and applications to bypass such repressive censorship.
Major high-profile events have dominated the discourse surrounding the internet freedom community – and for good reason. The tools and software developed by technologists and human rights activists have made impressive strides in giving a voice to the voiceless and helping the world understand the full extent of human rights abuses happening globally – both online and offline.
The restrictive environment in Russia deteriorated dramatically following the military invasion of Ukraine as the government moved quickly to block the most widely used global social media platforms. Even in the earliest days of the invasion and subsequent censorship activity, OTF saw an incredible surge in adoption of VPNs and other anti-censorship tools that OTF supports. These tools grew by tens of thousands of users per day as Russians looked for ways to navigate around newly imposed blocks. Importantly, these tools aided access to USAGM network sites, allowing Russian citizens to access news and information that had otherwise been blocked or internet speeds throttled.
In Iran, while waves of protests demanding reforms began in 2017, the death of Masha Amini while in Iranian police custody sparked a country-wide protest led mostly by women to demand an end to the mandatory hijab. Media coverage was constrained by the government’s restrictions on speech, including internet shutdowns and arrests of journalists and protesters. Censorship of social media sites increased drastically and mobile network disruptions reached a national scale. Despite increased censorship efforts by the Iranian government, innovative technical solutions allowed Iranians to bypass content restrictions, access important news, and communicate with one another. OTF provided support to VPN providers who helped Iranians access the unrestricted internet and helped USAGM news services reach Iranians during this critical period.
While these are only a few examples of the challenges faced by the Internet freedom community, OTF has supported numerous projects that have made significant strides in ensuring that individuals have access to the tools and solutions they need, no matter where they are located. Some of OTF’s recently supported projects include but are not limited to:
– 0xche – This project aims to map the state of cybersecurity in Latin American civil society organizations and ignite discussions inside the ecosystem to raise awareness on the challenges and defensive strategies. Led by a team of technologists in the human rights and civil society space in the region, the project will investigate the information security-practices landscape by examining select NGOs to understand the common vulnerabilities in their systems and the patterns in their attack surface.
– Osmocom Cellular Network Infrastructure – Osmocom aims to have fully-featured infrastructure elements for cellular networks implemented entirely in Open Source Software and provides alternatives to traditional cellular network infrastructure that is mainly made up of proprietary hardware and software with non-public documentation in hierarchical and centralized architecture which makes them easy to control and deploy variety of attacks against the people.
– VPNAlyzer – Utilizing OTF support, VPNalyzer will develop a system enabling systematic and automated investigation into the unregulated VPN ecosystem. VPNalyzer consists of large-scale quantitative and qualitative user studies, qualitative studies surveying VPN providers, and a cross-platform desktop tool for users to test their VPN connection’s security and privacy features.
– Divvi Up – A privacy-respecting system for the collection of aggregate statistics such as application metrics. It takes a user-generated metric, from a mobile device, web browser, or other application, and divides the metric into two encrypted shares, which can be used to create a privacy-preserving aggregate statistic of users.
In 2022, OTF supported important projects that aid in the deployment of more secure internet access, and shared crucial learnings and outputs. One such project with notable shared-learnings in 2022, Securing Domain Validation, protects domain validation against attackers that manipulate internet routing, helping to ensure that users are protected from malicious man-in-the-middle attacks and attacks that can spoof domain validation, which would otherwise allow adversaries to compromise high-security internet traffic. Time-tested tools also saw impactful improvements. FileZilla, a tool that allows anyone to transfer files securely over the internet, utilized OTF support to enhance application security, including integrating the FileZilla Server with Let’s Encrypt, a free, automated, and open source certificate authority that ensures secure communication between the two end-points ending or receiving a file via FileZilla.
Research through OTF projects found new global implications for censorship. OTF-supported Geneva project made a surprising and significant discovery in 2022: the middleboxes utilized by nation-state censors to wall off their citizens from the broader Internet can be used by third-party attackers to launch reflected distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on unsuspecting victims beyond the borders of the closed regimes. Geneva’s researchers also discovered that attackers are able to harness these systems to induce nation-state censors to block arbitrary pairs of IP addresses from communicating. Previously thought to be impossible, the discovery of these vulnerabilities means the very existence of censorship infrastructure poses a tangible risk to the entire Internet and everyone on it. The discoveries were responsibly disclosed to appropriate computer emergency readiness teams, allowing developers and technologists to begin crafting solutions to help mitigate such attacks.
Additional efforts were also supported, such as through oLink’s firewall circumvention technology, which enables content providers from a free country like the United States to target their audience in China. With support from OTF’s Internet Freedom Fund, oLink offers residents of China access to previously blocked information without ever going beyond the “Great Firewall”. OTF also continues to invest in improving state-of-the-art circumvention more broadly, and continues to support multiple VPNs to help users access content no matter where they are located.
OTF continues to support its Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP), which supports individuals working to examine restrictions on the free flow of information by repressive governments. In particular, ICFP fellows track Internet interference practices and investigate emerging means of overcoming censorship in repressive environments – the countries, regions, or areas worldwide where Internet freedom is most threatened. Efforts that focus on investigating the security and privacy of tools used in these contexts are also supported. In 2022, OTF began its eighth and ninth cohort of ICFP fellows to advance research and analysis on information controls, research potential or existing circumvention techniques, mitigate security vulnerabilities in access and privacy tools, identify specific tools used in individual countries for information controls, and more.
Additionally, OTF concluded its seventh class of ICFP fellows, which focused on research related to various censorship techniques employed by China and the avenues for circumvention. The cohort made impressive contributions to the fight for internet freedom in China, including developing a longitudinal measurement platform to monitor China’s censored domains, understand the most effective user-generated censorship evasion techniques in China and how to best utilize them, and investigate the underlying mechanisms used by China to identify and block various popular censorship circumvention protocols.
In the latter half of 2022, OTF released its FY2019/2020 Annual Report highlighting the innovative projects, impassioned research fellows, and incredible initiatives that work to advance internet freedom around the globe. While the report catalogs the projects OTF funded during these two years, it more importantly captures the incredible efforts and accomplishments of the OTF community and partners all around the world who have continued to advance internet freedom in the face of extraordinary odds.
This blog post is only a small sampling of all of the successes our community has seen over the past year. We encourage you to browse OTF’s website and sign up for OTF’s monthly newsletter, which highlights internet freedom news from around the world, as well as provides insight into OTF’s activities. With the ongoing support of our community and partners, OTF is stronger and more resilient than ever. The OTF team is excited for what we all will be able to accomplish in the year to come.