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April 2019 Monthly Report

In April, the Open Technology Fund continued to both receive a large number of support requests and to support a diverse portfolio of internet freedom projects and fellows addressing Internet censorship and surveillance threats in closed societies around the world. This month, OTF supported the Internet Freedom Festival, the world’s preeminent gathering for the internet freedom community. The OTF team is now reviewing and responding to the 197 concept notes received for the May 1 round of the Internet Freedom Fund and Core Infrastructure Fund - one of the highest rounds on record for number of concept notes received.

Notable accomplishments

  • The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) published a report analyzing a social media shutdown in Benin amid the country’s 2019 parliamentary elections, held on April 28, 2019. The collaborative report, based off OONI, IODA (Internet Outage Detection and Analysis), and RIPE Atlas data, confirmed the censorship event, with OONI data showing that Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Snapchat were among the blocked sites - corroborating initial findings by previously OTF-support NetBlocks. IODA data confirmed the wide breadth of the shutdown event, finding that the “blackouts were not limited to a single [Autonomous System, or] AS; instead, many large ASes in Benin experienced blackouts.” Over the course of the month, the OONI Probe mobile app was run 319,720 times from 4,805 different vantage points in 212 countries around the world.
  • GreatFire’s App Store Censorship project added new features including an Apple App Store overview for every country that has a dedicated App Store. This allows you to quickly and easily check which apps are unavailable in a certain country, though the reason may or may not be related censorship. In the case of China, more than 1,100 apps have so far been identified as unavailable in the country.
  • OpenArchive, a secure open source media archiving ecosystem designed to preserve materials otherwise censored and deleted by repressive actors, released the iOS beta of the Save app, which is currently in user testing. The Android version is undergoing QA testing now. Progress for both versions can be tracked in real time on GitHub (see iOS and Android).
  • DeltaChat, a unique server-less messenger tool that utilizes email provider infrastructure to enable the exchange of end-to-end encrypted messages, made progress in continuing the development of the DeltaChat app, including by porting the core library of DeltaChat to the Rust programming language, testing on-demand location sharing features, and conducting UX testing sessions with journalists and activists. The DeltaChat team is now continuing development work focusing on the eventual stabilized releases for Android and Desktop. You can read more about DeltaChat’s recent progress in this blog post: https://delta.chat/en/2019-05-08-xyiv
  • The PyPI Improvements project finalized the backend and user experience for two-factor authentication (2FA) and also planned and started user tests for the new feature, advertising the test to PyPI users and requesting feedback. Adding 2FA will help to improve security for the PyPI platform and its addition has previously been requested by users. The test is ongoing until May 20th; you can read more about this user testing here and track ongoing progress of the project here.
  • Several new projects are now under OTF support, including:
    • Ouinet, a free, open source technology which allows web content to be served with the help of an entire network of cooperating nodes using peer-to-peer routing and distributed caching of responses, will focus on improving the scalability and reliability of the Ouinet library's existing technical components, further enabling the ability of Ouinet to be integrated into existing circumvention tool networks.
    • A project focused on Improving Test Lists of Censored Online Content, which will update Citizen Lab’s test lists that network measurement tools use to uncover blocking of websites. While network probes have greatly evolved over the years, test lists for some countries and regions have seen little updates, which negatively affects the quality of collected measurements; this project will address this problem by updating these lists with fresh URLs, cleaning them from faulty entries and advancing recommendations for streamlining the process of lists revision.
  • Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellow Bekah Overdorf is now under contract with OTF, working 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. The project focuses 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.
  • ICFP fellow Valentin Weber co-authored a blog post around his research on censorship in mobile app stores, specifically focusing on the availability of VPN apps in Russia and China. The blog post is based off Weber’s research to be detailed in an upcoming paper on the topic (find the paper here: “Shedding Light on Mobile App Store Censorship”), finding that while both Russia and China have passed restrictive legislation affecting VPN providers, “most major VPN apps are still available on the Apple and Google app stores in Russia,” while “on the Apple and Tencent app stores in China, there are close to none.”
  • WeChatScope, a platform that collects and visualizes censored messages on WeChat’s public accounts, was featured in Mozilla’s Internet Health Report in article called “Tracking China’s censorship of news on WeChat.” From the report: “A group of researchers at the University of Hong Kong have been working to track technical censorship on WeChat, using an innovative Web “scraping” system that captures millions of posts from the platform’s most popular public accounts and makes them available to others in formats that can be visualized, mapped and understood in the context of time…The WeChatscope project sheds light on what often feels like a black box of censorship policies and practices that are crafted and carried out by the Chinese government — and the companies required to comply with state demands. It also offers new possibilities for tech experts inside and outside the country to seek new ways to circumvent censorship in China.”

Localization Lab held a Localization Sprint & demos at the Internet Freedom Festival, with featured tools including CGIProxy, Tor Project, SecureDrop, Psiphon, Umbrella App and Check. During the sprint participants were able to demo tools, learn how to contribute to the localization process, and begin translating and reviewing. In April, the Lab welcomed 54 new contributors supporting projects in languages including Bahasa Indonesia, Korean, Russian, Chinese (Traditional), Bosnian, Thai, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Polish, Albanian, Urdu, Spanish, Marathi, Arabic, Hungarian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, and Romanian, among others. Over the course of the month, volunteers translated a total of 103,650 words, edited 78,178 words and reviewed 59,300 words across projects in the Localization Lab Hub.

Select news collected by OTF from the month of April 2019 - Get the full feed live @OpenTechFund or sign up to receive our daily newsletter.

Joint Statement on Russia's "Sovereign Internet Bill" | Human Rights Watch
Made in China, Exported to the World: The Surveillance State | New York Times
Benin Internet Shutdown Repeats Pattern of Government Censorship Across Africa | VOA
Chadians feel 'anger, revolt' as they struggle without internet for one year | CNN
State-sponsored hackers target Amnesty International Hong Kong with sophisticated cyber-attack | Amnesty International
China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority | The Guardian
GitHub Is Now Where China's Tech Workers Vent Outside Reach Of Censors | NPR
Sudan’s anti-government protests face a total power outage and social media shutdown | Quartz
Government official says the ban on messaging apps is slowing flood relief in Iran | Global Voices

Projects Mentioned