Censorship Detection and Circumvention: Rapid Response in Africa

OTF-supported effort addresses internet censorship in The Gambia, Ghana, Sudan, South Sudan, and the DRC
Tue, 2017-02-14 19:44

A community post written by Arthur Gwagwa about two Rapid Response projects he recently completed: one on censorship detection research in The Gambia, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the other on raising awareness of censorship circumvention technologies for at-risk communities in Sudan, South Sudan, and the DRC. Arthur, previously an OTF Information Controls fellow, carried out this work in December 2016 and January of this year.

During my time as an OTF Information Controls fellow, my work focused on censorship detection research in several southern and eastern African countries. Since the end of my fellowship, I have worked on two Rapid Response projects elsewhere in Africa: one focusing on censorship detection in The Gambia, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the other on raising awareness of circumvention technologies for users in Sudan, South Sudan, and the DRC.

Internet shutdowns in The Gambia, Ghana, and the DRC

Both The Gambia and Ghana held elections in December 2016. Beforehand, there was widespread speculation that internet shutdowns might occur during this time in both countries. In anticipation, I deployed Raspberry PIs equipped with OONI software to detect any internet censorship or disruptions.

This proved to be the case in The Gambia, where the internet was shut down on the eve of the elections. A few hours after our probe was set up, it stopped working, likely due to the internet blackout. The shutdown was likely meant to disrupt protests occurring in relation to the election, as longtime President Yahya Jammeh feared losing his seat (which he did, though not before refusing to honor the elections results).

More details on this research can be read on the OONI blog.

A little over a week later, the DRC shut down access to social media, coinciding with the end of President Joseph Kabila’s term in office and in attempts to curtail public protests. The DRC government ordered national ISPs to block access to websites including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

At time of writing, our Ghana test results were still in analysis with OONI; they will be added here when available.

Awareness-raising among activists in Sudan, South Sudan, and the DRC

Along with the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan face an urgent need with respect to digital security awareness and understanding. In response to this situation, during the first two weeks of 2017, I worked on a project titled “Keeping the Internet accessible in Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo through circumvention tools in the event of a shutdown.”

By assessing the local context and specific threats prevalent in these communities, I came up with a working document outlining viable circumvention tool options in the event of an internet blockage or shutdown.

Through the help of the Localization Lab, this resource is available in EnglishFrench, and Arabic.

Disseminating the documents in Sudan was not easy at first as many digital digital security trainers were detained, including several from NGOs such as SIF Sudan and KACE Sudan. However, by working in coordination with other human rights-focused organizations, both US-based and inside Sudan, the resource made its way into the hands of over 100 activists working at the forefronts of human rights issues in Sudan and South Sudan.

Impact and Next Steps

These projects have demonstrated that:

  • Internet shutdowns are increasingly utilized by African governments in response to or in anticipation of public protests, as we saw in The Gambia and the DRC;
  • The Sudanese and South Sudanese governments are severely restricting digital freedom;
  • Digital security trainers are at great risk; and
  • Targeted digital rights awareness work, including digital security training, is in high demand.

With the help of OONI, we will be discussing this research and our experiences at the upcoming Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) during my session, “Understanding internet censorship in Africa’s repressive environments through the deployment of OONI software probes and Citizen Lab mixed research methods.” I will also share my views when I facilitate a session at the upcoming Internet Freedom Forum in Lagos, Nigeria, entitled “Tech tools and Circumvention.”


Learn more about OTF’s Rapid Response Fund here.
OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship is now accepting applications. Learn more about the program and apply here.