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February 2020 Monthly Report

In February, OTF continued reviewing and responding to the 95 concept notes submitted during the January 1 round for the Internet Freedom and Core Infrastructure Funds, while also now reviewing the 129 concept notes submitted during the March 1 round. In addition, the OTF team is now reviewing the 7 concept notes received for the Technology at Scale Fund’s first-ever round solicitation. The Technology at Scale Fund is OTF’s newest fund which will support mature internet freedom technologies that directly serve USAGM entities. Also under review are the 40 applications received for the next cohort of the Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP). Also this month, OTF CEO Libby Liu authored an op-ed discussing how the U.S. “…and its allies must act together to protect the internet as a democratic space for free expression and human dignity,” including through efforts like OTF.

Notable accomplishments

  • Let’s Encrypt announced the launch of multi-perspective validation, an effort that helps address a fundamental flaw baked into the way websites are verified and encrypted. The deployment of multi-perspective validation will help reduce the ability of network-level adversaries to exploit a high-level vulnerability that makes it possible for Internet traffic to be intercepted en masse. The effort was supported by OTF through the Securing Domain Validation project, a collaborative effort between Princeton University researchers and Let’s Encrypt. Read more about the launch in this Let’s Encrypt blog post: Multi-Perspective Validation Improves Domain Validation Security. In the same month, Let’s Encrypt announced that they’ve now issued more than one billion certificates total; 81% of pages globally now use HTTPS encryption, up 23% from June 2017, according to Let’s Encrypt - a major boost for the privacy and security of Internet users worldwide.
  • ICFP fellow Marcus Michaelsen published research (pdf) examining the online efforts of authoritarian regimes to intimidate journalists, activists and other human rights defenders living abroad, with a specific focus on diaspora populations from Egypt, Syria, and Iran. Governments from these countries all engage in online transnational practices deliberately designed to systematically interfere with the fundamental rights of activists—namely their rights to privacy and freedom of expression. In response, targeted activists experience constant tension and stress, and see their ties to their home country undermined—inevitably altering the dynamics, impact, and outreach of diaspora activism. Read more about Marcus’ research and access the full report in this OTF blog post: The Silencing Effect of Digital Transnational Repression.
  • MassBrowser, a volunteer-driven censorship circumvention tool, released MassBrowser version 0.11 (beta release), which includes several notable improvements, including use of Tor to circumvent blocked sites while using MassBrowser, the addition of a browser plugin to the tool’s built-in Firefox browser, and support for a Chinese language version, with support for more languages planned through the help of OTF’s Localization Lab. Learn more about MassBrowser on the newly redesigned MassBrowser website.
  • The Suspicious Email Submitter project completed OTF-supported work on PhishDetect, a browser extension designed to help at-risk users like independent journalists to identify potential phishing attacks. Final improvements made recently included implementing usability improvements gathered through in-person user testing, such as the addition of a simpler welcome page for new PhishDetect users. You can learn more about PhishDetect at https://phishdetect.io/ and download the browser extension for Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.
  • The Onions on Apples project released version 2.5.0 of Onion Browser 2, which contains nearly all of the project’s planned content, including user experience improvements and a new Onion Browser site. The release, which makes the Tor Onion Browser available in 25 languages for iOS users, can be downloaded via the Apple App Store.
  • The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) added support to the OONI Probe censorship detection mobile app to test for the availability of the Tor, obfs4proxy, and Psiphon circumvention tools. Also this month, OONI published a research report on the blocking of instant messaging apps in Toga amid the 2020 presidential elections. Thanks to on-the-ground testing by OONI Probe users in Toga, OONI found that access to the WhatsApp mobile app, Telegram Web, and Facebook Messenger were blocked on two networks in the country on election day, while they remained accessible on a third network, suggesting that Internet censorship varies across ISPs in Togo. Throughout February, 7,669,694 OONI Probe measurements were collected from 5,511 networks in 214 countries around the world.
  • The alpha version of the CENO Browser is now available for testing on the Google Play Store. Ouinet, the underlying technology that powers the CENO mobile web browser, takes a novel approach to enable Internet censorship circumvention for users in highly repressive environments, using peer-to-peer networking and distributed storage to get around blocks and restrictions. If you are interested in testing, you can provide feedback to the development team via GitHub.
  • Tahoe-LAFS developers Least Authority shared initial findings from their project, “Organizational Deployment of Secure Distributed Storage with Tahoe-LAFS,” at FOSDEM (Free & Open Source Developers’ European Meeting), including recommendations on how projects can include human rights organizations in their design process. Through the pilot project, Least Authority is working with four partner organizations to make their secure, open source data storage and file sharing tools more accessible and usable for human rights groups and independent journalists. The presentation and accompanying slides can be found on the FOSDEM site.
  • The Localization Lab shared a recap of how their volunteer-driven translation community grew in 2019, including adding approximately 560 contributors to aid in the translation of Internet freedom tools into 65 different languages. Over the course of the year, a total of 763 contributors translated 1,305,125 words, reviewed 601,423 words and edited 1,081,034 words across 220 different languages. Localization Lab facilitates the translation of projects like Tor, Guardian Project, OONI, and Signal. You can learn more, including how to contribute, by checking out the Localization Lab wiki, localization hub on Transifex, or by following the Lab on Twitter @L10nLab.
  • DIFP Fellow Szeming’s project involved improving the digital security practices of two Southeast Asian human rights organizations. In doing so, she not only created a digital security policy for the organizations, but also a checklist for small organizations to begin incorporating digital security best practices into their day-to-day work. The guidance on how small organizations can begin following digital security best practices can be found here in this OTF blog post: Guidelines for Creating a Digital Security Policy.
  • DIFP Fellow Atnafu Brhane, whose work involved assisting a prominent Ethiopian NGO with their digital security needs, created a digital security guide in 3 languages for use among the Ethiopian human rights community. The guides are also available on the Localization Lab portal, ensuring that internet freedom technology vocabulary is also accessible for other projects.
  • OTF’s newest class of Digital Integrity Fellowship Program (DIFP) fellows includes seven digital security experts who will be aiding in the digital security needs of journalists and other front-line communities in East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, and Latin America.
  • 5G and Human Rights, a new project focusing on analyzing the risks and opportunities of 5G for human rights in general, and freedom of expression and the right to privacy in particular, is now under OTF support. 5G will alter the characteristics of how information is sent, transported, filtered, and routed, as well as the parties that have access to it. This new infrastructure (and the protocols that enable it) could significantly hamper the usage and workings of existing privacy-, anonymity-, security-, and freedom of expression-enabling protocols. On the other hand, the development of a new communication infrastructure allows for the protection of fundamental human rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press from the beginning, and thus not repeating the mistakes that were made with the Internet and past cellular network technology generations. The project’s research will focus specifically on countries where human rights are under severe threat where 5G will be implemented: Brazil and South Africa.

Select news collected by OTF from the month of February 2020 - Get the full feed by signing up to receive the OTF newsletter or follow us on Twitter @opentechfund.

WireGuard Gives Linux a Faster, More Secure VPN | WIRED
Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media | Citizen Lab
China stifles foreign internet to control coronavirus coverage | Financial Times
In Kashmir, a spree of arrests for alleged ‘misuse’ of social media and VPNs | Scroll.in
Ethiopia passes law imposing jail terms for internet posts that stir unrest | Reuters
Myanmar students face charges over internet shutdown protest: student union | Reuters
Internet Shutdowns Become a Favorite Tool of Governments | Wall Street Journal
Signal Is Finally Bringing Its Secure Messaging to the Masses | WIRED
Pakistan broadcast regulator proposes sweeping control of internet news programs | Committee to Protect Journalists
How China spies on Uyghurs in Turkey | Coda Story

Projects Mentioned