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December 2017 Monthly Report

| By: Dan McDevitt

In December, 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 where the free flow of information is curtailed. During the past month, OTF closed the application window for its third Digital Integrity Fellowship Program (DIFP) cohort and is now reviewing those applications. OTF is also now reviewing the 155 concept notes submitted for the January 1 round - the highest number of concept notes received at one time in OTF history.

Notable accomplishments

  • The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) released a report confirming censorship in Iran amid ongoing nationwide protests. OONI network measurement data collected from Iran between 12/28/17 - 1/2/18 confirmed the blocking of Telegram, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and the Tor network (in addition to other sites and tools blocked prior to the protests). Netblocks data further distinguished between short-term “just in time” and longer-term censorship techniques applied to different websites. Both Netblocks and OONI’s findings showed Iranian ISPs implementing blocks with consistency.

  • In response to increased censorship and the blocking of Telegram and Instagram in particular, Iranians turned to circumvention technologies such as Tor and previously OTF-supported Lantern to get around the blocks. Tor users connecting directly from Iran saw a sizable uptick (left) as authorities cracked down on protesters. It appears Iran then blocked access to Tor itself, which led to a rampant increase in Tor Bridges users (right). Lantern, which removed all data caps for Iranian users and tripled the rate at which new servers are added to meet the increased demand, saw its global users grow fourfold after Telegram was blocked, with almost all of the growth coming from Iran.



  • Localization Lab completed a rapid translation of the most recent release of the Android mobile Tor app Orbot into Farsi, ensuring its usability for Farsi speakers in Iran and elsewhere. Localization Lab also finished translations for SecureDrop 0.5 in six languages, Signal into Thai, and Psiphon Android into 18 languages.

  • GlobaLeaks, an open-source identity protecting secure submission tool, was adopted for use by a consortium of ten media and five civil society organizations in Indonesia. Dubbed IndonesiaLeaks, the platform will allow for sources to more safely submit information, documents, and tips to investigative journalists and other human rights defenders. Among the fifteen organizations are news organizations CNN Indonesia and The Jakarta Post, along with civil society organizations Indonesia Corruption Watch and Change.org. Read more about IndonesiaLeaks here.

  • Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation released a report detailing the year one operations of its Cyber Harassment Hotline (OTF provided support for the hotline’s first six months of operations). In its first year, the hotline experienced a large volume of complaints, handling 1,551 complaints primarily in the form of calls as well as Facebook messages and emails. Inbound cases were from people (67% female) experiencing harassment and/or the threat of violence online, including blackmailing, stolen devices, impersonation, doxxing, and stalking. Read the full report here.

  • In December, OONI’s mobile censorship detection app OONI Probe was run more than 280,000 times from 4,550 different vantage points across 210 countries around the world. Also this month, through the Localization Lab and in preparation for the release of new app features, OONI Probe was translated into Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Persian, Russian, and Spanish. OONI Probe is available for both iOS and Android devices (and via F-Droid here).

  • ICFP fellow Arzu Geybullayeva began her fellowship, focused on advancing understanding of information controls in Azerbaijan. Arzu will perform research around the country’s internet infrastructure and relevant country legislation, document past internet blocks and surveillance mechanisms used, and also track network interference. Arzu will work with host organization Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University for the duration of her fellowship.

  • Privacy and security enhancing open-source browser extension NoScript achieved compatibility with Firefox for Android, with NoScript 10.1.5.8 marked as the first truly cross-platform NoScript release. The changes made pave the way and provide foundation for future Chrome and other operating system compatibility.

  • Tails completed a user research assessment to better understand Tails users’ familiarity with and use of open-source disk encryption software VeraCrypt, soliciting over 1,000 responses. The findings will inform Tails’ work on integrating support for VeraCrypt into the privacy and security enhancing operating system. View the full survey results here.

  • Several new projects are now under contract with OTF: Throneless Tech has begun development of Ionosphere, a plugin and adapter that will use Hubot to make a ‘Signal bot’ allowing activists, journalists, and civil society to disseminate media content in the event of website blockages and also send group messages over Signal without exposing their phone numbers; Computer Incident Response Center for Civil Society (CiviCERT) is now developing Suspicious Email Submitter, a browser and mail client extension designed to allow activists, journalists, and civil society to submit suspicious (possibly malicious) emails to digital security researchers for rapid evaluation; the Tor Project is now working on Making Tor More User Friendly, addressing UX components of Tor by integrating design-oriented work into the development process; and the University of Hong Kong is now developing WeChatScope, a system to collect, analyze, and visualize censored messages on WeChat’s public accounts - one of the most popular social media platforms in China.

    Select news collected by OTF from the month of December 2017 - Get the full feed live @OpenTechFund or sign up to receive our daily newsletter

    Since 2015, China’s internet “clean-up” shut over 13,000 websites, 10 million user accounts | Quartz
    Twelve Days in Xinjiang: How China’s Surveillance State Overwhelms Daily Life | Wall Street Journal
    Man in China sentenced to five years’ jail for running VPN | The Guardian
    Russia’s federal censor says it will block mass media outlets that share content from outlawed ‘undesirable organizations’ | Meduza
    China’s Top Ideologue Calls for Tight Control of Internet | New York Times
    Ethiopia has blocked social media sites as new Oromo protests hit the country | Quartz
    Jailed for a Text: China’s Censors Are Spying on Mobile Chat Groups | Wall Street Journal
    Russia Blocks Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia Website | The Moscow Times

Projects Mentioned