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Fourth Cohort of Information Controls Fellows in Review

| By: Adam Lynn

Looking back at the accomplishments of the fourth class of Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellows

OTF’s fourth class of Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellows was a diverse group comprised of computer scientists, legal experts, researchers, and software engineers, for example. With the cohort’s fellowships completed, we’d like to highlight the fellows and the accomplishments they achieved.

This group completed work on a wide range of projects, including conducting research on information controls developments in post-Soviet states, improving tools to bolster existing censorship measurement detection systems, and researching security vulnerabilities in popular VPNs, for example. If these topics are of interest to you, please note that OTF is currently accepting applications for its next class of ICFP fellows, with a deadline of February 24, 2019.

Below, you can find a brief description of each fellow’s area of focus, what they accomplished, and links to related materials where applicable. Over the course of their fellowships, fellows have presented their findings publicly in the form of reports, presentations, and by releasing open source code. In some cases noted below, public reports are forthcoming.

Taha Khan
Host organization: International Computer Science Institute, UC Berkeley
Duration: Twelve Months
As a senior fellow, Taha worked to better understand the commercial Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) ecosystem, focusing specifically on how they handle user traffic and to what extent these services actually stand up to their public privacy claims. Taha worked with ICSI to produce a paper, open source code and created a website based on empirical evidence, which can be accessed by global users to understand the specifics of VPN services and aid them in making a more informed choice when selecting amongst available VPN services.

Zack Weinberg
Host organization: Calipr research group at University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Duration: Twelve Months
As a Senior Information Controls Fellow, Zack worked with the Calipr research group at University of Massachusetts - Amherst on improving censorship detection. The project further developed software capable of continually refining the set of web pages monitored for censorship in various countries, and for assisting with analysis of the censorship policies in these countries. Zack also published a paper assessing the geographic accuracy of proxy servers for commercial VPNs. He recently completed his PhD dissertation: Toward Automated Worldwide Monitoring of Network-Level Censorship. Previous research includes Topics of Controversy: An Empirical Analysis of Web Censorship Lists.

Igor Valentovitch
Host organization:
As a Senior Fellow, Igor Valentovich worked with to conduct a comparative research on the progress of information controls in select countries from the former Soviet Union space (CIS). He researched variables that account for similarities and differences in the adopted censorship mechanisms across the region as well as investigated instances of cyber-attacks against local media projects to isolate their triggers. Igor updated regional test lists and conducted series of network measurements in select CIS countries to test for “just-in-time” filtering around the Russian presidential elections and probe for “upstream filtering”. In the process, he introduced an innovative testing methodology based on the use of a single curated test list across multiple territories. Collaborating with Ksenia Ermoshina, he subjected to comparative analysis the blocking of critical platforms in Russia and Crimea during the elections. Their research, which will be released in March 2019, will shed light on the consistency of blocking, instances of over-blocking, and factors that account for the differences in the filtering approaches in both territories.

Ksenia Ermoshina
Host organization: Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Duration: Twelve Months
As a Senior Information Controls Fellow, Ksenia worked with Citizen Lab to investigate information operations (censorship, shutdowns, targeted surveillance) in the context of armed conflicts and post-annexation in the former soviet-union region, namely Ukraine and Russia. Combining network measurements, sociology and usability studies, Ksenia conducted fieldwork in the region to detect blocking mechanisms and practices, update regional test lists, identify the main security threats for at-risk populations and contribute to building an interdisciplinary methodology for the study of information control in conflicting areas. She employed a hybrid methodology combining network measurements, science and technology studies, and a qualitative ethnographic approach. In addition to her collaboration with Igor Valentovitch, a standalone report with Citizen Lab will also be published in Spring 2019. Ksenia’s previous research includes “Migrating Servers, Elusive Users: Reconfigurations of the Russian Internet in the Post-Snowden Era.”

Arzu Geybullayeva
Host organization: Berkman Klein Center, Harvard University
Duration: Six Months
Arzu worked with the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University to advance understanding of information controls in Azerbaijan. Arzu significantly advanced understanding of information controls in Azerbaijan. She performed research around the country’s internet infrastructure and relevant country legislation, documenting past internet blocks and surveillance mechanisms used, and tracked network interference. A summary of her research was posted on the OTF website. Arzu’s previous research includes “In the crosshairs of Azerbaijan’s patriotic trolls.

Sergei Hovyadinov
Host organization: Ranking Digital Rights Project, Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation
As a senior fellow, Sergei Hovyadinov worked with the Ranking Digital Rights project at the Open Technology Institute to provide an in-depth analysis of the role of internet intermediaries in the execution of Russian state controls over the internet and how these companies adjust their operations and transparency practices in autocratic regimes like Russia. A Russian version was released first while a summary blog post and the accompanying paper were subsequently released in English. Sergei also presented the findings at numerous conferences and other public events and produced two additional blog posts in Russian. In addition, Sergei published a post that detailed the gaps in existing transparency reports

Simone Basso
Host organization: Measurement Lab, Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation
Duration: Twelve Months
Simone worked with Measurement Lab at the Open Technology Institute focusing his fellowship on advancing the MeasurementKit platform. MeasurementKit is the engine underneath censorship detection tool OONI-Probe’s mobile testing platform and the Measurement Lab performance testing platform, which generate millions of data points each year. Simone focused on making network performance measurements more easily available on mobile and embedded devices, and on making the engine used by OONI available on Windows and more capable. In addition, during his fellowship, Simone co-designed with his host organization, Measurement Lab, a better network performance test protocol, called ndt7, that collects more useful low level information building on recent Linux kernel advancements, and that is expected to use less bandwidth by default. The latter makes ndt7 more palatable to users in developing markets that have metered, mobile internet connections than other network performance tests. Simone’s previous research includes “Measuring DASH Streaming Performance from the End Users Perspective using Neubot.”


The Open Technology Fund (OTF)’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) supports examination into how governments in countries, regions, or areas of OTF’s core focus are restricting the free flow of information, impeding access to the open internet, and implementing censorship mechanisms, thereby threatening the ability of global citizens to exercise basic human rights and democracy. The program supports fellows to work within host organizations that are established centers of expertise by offering competitively paid fellowships for three, six, nine, or twelve months in duration.

OTF is currently accepting applications for its next cohort of ICFP fellows. The deadline to apply is February 24, 2019. To learn more about the program and access the application, click here.