Information Controls Fellows Reflect on Their ICFP Experience

Sat, 2017-03-18 15:02

All fellows participating in OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) work on topics related to repressive internet censorship and surveillance, but the approach and focus of each fellow’s work is unique. As a multifaceted challenge, information controls research necessitates a multidisciplinary approach.

To highlight the variety of viable research paths taken by ICFP fellows, we sat down (remotely) with three past fellows: Wafa Ben Hassine, a seasonal fellow who focused on researching censorship from a policy perspective in several Arab countries, Arthur Gwagwa, a senior fellow who focused on researching information controls methods and events in several southern and eastern African countries, a senior fellow who focused on developing Snowflake, a new pluggable transport enabling censorship circumvention.

Please note that OTF is currently accepting applications for its next round of ICFP fellows. The deadline is March 19 at 11:59 PM GMT (6:59 PM EST). More information and the application can be found here.

Wafa Ben Hassine, Seasonal Fellow

Focus: Researching how Arab nations use cybercrime laws to crack down on dissidents

Published output: “The Crime of Speech: How Arab Governments Use the Law to Silence Expression Online”

During your time as an ICFP fellow, you worked on a report analyzing how policies and laws in the Arab world are used to suppress free speech. The report was published through your host organization, EFF. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and how you approached it?

The project was inspired by seeing case after case of arrests in the Arab world of citizens simply expressing their opinions on the internet. These people are not mere numbers – they all have stories to tell and lives to enjoy. I knew that the least I could do was document their cases and raise awareness about them publicly. The ICFP fellowship offered me an avenue to doing so.

I approached the project methodically: I wanted my research to be taken seriously, and to have a solid methodological spine to hold it up when under critique. As such, I spent the bulk of my time actually researching and considering the most methodologically sound way to execute the research.

Do you have any reflections to offer about your experience as an ICFP fellow? How would you describe the experience overall?

Working from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and interacting with its staff on a daily basis, greatly shaped my experience as an ICFP Fellow. Besides completing my research on time, I have forged enduring relationships and made good friends at the EFF during the fellowship period. I also learned an incredible amount from my interactions with them.

As for the research itself, it was sometimes emotionally burdensome. I felt a good deal of secondary trauma, yet, I knew the research was urgent. Finally, I had a very supportive supervisor who not only encouraged me through the substantive bits, but who also kept me on track and focused – one of the first things we worked on together was creating a structured research and production timeline.

What key takeaways, if any, did you walk away from your ICFP fellowship with?

That no matter how much research you do, you are always chipping away at endless mountains. Given that my fellowship was only six months long, I was forced to limit my inquiry to publicly available information. Whereas this clearly limits the scope and applicability of my findings, it kept me focused, and helped me complete the task at hand.

I also walked away with the somber realization that there is still a lot of work to do in the Arab world. The way these countries are unfolding/evolving/devolving only points towards one conclusion: that each country has a trajectory in its own right. In terms of human rights online, the Libyan experience cannot be confidently related to the Syrian, nor can the Tunisian experience be linked to the Lebanese. Each country in the Arab world has a very unique modern history. As a designation, the term “MENA Region” has little value. At most, we should think about this area of the world in sub-regions: Maghreb, Gulf, Levant. Anything broader, and we lose meaningful analysis.

What advice, if any, would you offer to a potential ICFP applicant?

Be as precise as possible in your research/project proposal. The ICFP fellowship is time-constrained, so you want to make sure that you identify your goals and have a clearly delineated hypothesis from the onset of your work.Applications for the next round of ICFP fellows are due March 19, 2017 at 11:59 PM GMT (6:59 PM EST). Apply:

Arthur Gwagwa, Senior Fellow

Focus: Researching information controls in southern and eastern Africa

Published output: “Analysis of the Relationship Between Online Information Controls and Elections in Zambia”

During your time as an ICFP fellow, you researched information controls systems in several countries in southern and eastern Africa. Can you tell us a bit more about this research, what countries you looked at, and what you found?

My research documented and analysed internet-based information control systems, policies and practices primarily in three Southern African nations; Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Swaziland. Approaching this topic through a ‘mixed research methods’ approach, I defined information controls broadly to mean actions that governments, the private sector and other actors take through the internet and other information communications technologies to deny (e.g., internet filtering), disrupt (e.g., network shutdowns), monitor (e.g., network surveillance), or secure (e.g., encryption) information for political ends.

The research found that through the usage of both online and offline technical and normative capabilities, governments in these countries have used laws to enable selective access and denial to essential information with a knock on effect on key democratic and other political processes. Such strategies create an environment that allows content controls to be applied ‘‘just in time,’’ when the information being targeted has the highest value (e.g., during elections or public demonstrations). An example is the blackout of Twitter in Swaziland during high court hearings of important human rights cases and official country visits by UN officials.

This reflects a broader trend: a recent shift in focus from the blocking of websites to the shutting down of social media mostly during elections. The shift can be explained both from the cost perspective but also the rising importance of social media. Social media and associated communication platforms such WhatsApp have become more popular than websites as sources of information. Most ordinary people no longer visit websites that frequent[ly] but [instead visit] social media. You can read a summary of my reports here and my analysis on the eve of Zambia’s 2016 elections here.

Do you have any reflections to offer about your experience as an ICFP fellow? How would you describe the experience overall?

My experience was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed mutual trust both with the OTF and Strathmore teams. Before applying for the fellowship, [OTF Senior Program Manager] Lindsay Beck informed me about it and encouraged me to apply. Given that I had known her prior, it made it easy for OTF to believe in me before I even proved myself. I also spent a couple of months before my fellowship mobilising my existing and new social networks in the region, who all became pivotal in my understanding of the censorship terrain in their own countries.

Both the application process and formative fellowship days benefitted from opportunistic and planned peer-to-peer collaborations, especially with Citizen Lab. The Lab quickly believed in me and assisted me in framing my research approach. This clearly demonstrated the importance of social networks and the social capital such networks bring. It was they (Citizen Lab) who connected me to OONI who have since become my long term technical partner as I rely on their Raspberry PIs and software to technically detect censorship.

What key takeaways, if any, did you walk away from your ICFP fellowship with?

  • An understanding of the technical community, various tools, technologies and approaches vital to advance the Internet Freedom agenda. This helps me work effectively with the technical community but also bridge the gap between policy and technology. I have come to realise that language, especially terminology and the ability to precisely express oneself, is important in this community.
  • It was not just about my research but relationships I built and enhanced within the various constituencies. I am more useful to the community than I was at the beginning. By implication, I am more useful to those at risk in the countries we work in. As an example, soon after my fellowship, OTF supported me to undertake some rapid response work in some of the most repressive countries. This work was both practical and useful. Connecting the OTF projects to those most at risk has brought our work to where it is/will be needed most.
  • I have grown as a professional and I have no doubt I will provide leadership to the younger generation working on tech policy in the region. As a result of my time at OTF, I have been invited to facilitate sessions in Uganda, Lagos, Valencia, Toronto and Baltimore. This demonstrates the confidence that colleagues have in me. Colleagues regard me as a reliable ‘go to person’. If there is dirty footwork to be done, they know they can come to me as I am ready to serve them with humility. I never regret the day I hung my regalia as a lawyer and joined this space!

What advice, if any, would you offer to a potential ICFP applicant?

  • Do your research, first to know what exactly OTF does but also what has already been covered in your research and by whom. This knowledge will enable you to pitch your application at the right level.
  • Even if most areas and countries appear to have been covered already, don’t be afraid to be bold and innovative. Use your imagination, be courageous. Don’t feel intimidated. We are all on an exploratory journey. If we had absolute knowledge we wouldn’t still be searching for knowledge. What will make you stand out is your courage to venture out and present a very bold proposal and your confidence that you can deliver.
  • Working in teams is good but can also bring about clashes of expectations. Always check your ego. It’s not about your individual role you play, though important, but the overall team goal.

[Name Redacted], Senior Fellow

Focus: Developing new circumvention tool with NAT traversal feature

In progress: Development of a new pluggable transport called Snowflake

During your time as an ICFP fellow, you worked on Snowflake, a new type of pluggable transport, at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute. Can you tell us a bit more about Snowflake and your work on it during your time as a fellow?

Snowflake is a new simple-to-use pluggable transport involving a network of volunteer proxies and WebRTC. For instance, by just leaving a browser tab proxy open, you can act as an ephemeral Tor bridge and help censored users reach the free internet. During my time as an ICFP senior fellow, I designed and developed the prototype in collaboration with others, and released an initial version with Tor Browser Bundle. The code is mirrored on github and torproject.

Do you have any reflections to offer about your experience as an ICFP fellow? How would you describe the experience overall?

It was overall quite wonderful. I had the great fortune of collaborating with David Fifield, Arlo Breault, and many others at ICSI, Tor, and beyond. As a flexible remote-working arrangement, I found it to be more empowering, productive, and rewarding than many other potential working arrangements and structures.

What key takeaways, if any, did you walk away from your ICFP fellowship with?

There is a wonderful community around internet freedom work, and support and collaborators can be found in many places. The tooling in our world needs work. Reproducible builds are important but sometimes have very painful dependencies. Shipping takes longer than you expect, even if you expect it to take longer than you expect, and even if you expect it to take longer than you expect it to take longer than you expect. Life without a day-job is much better. Internet freedom needs all the help it can get. It needs your help.

What advice, if any, would you offer to a potential ICFP applicant?

This can be a great way to research and prototype a new idea. Focus on the potential impact and make it reality. Most fellows appear to come from academia, so I imagine the ICFP stipend is very helpful there. However, being post-industry and also a concert pianist, my situation was different than most – the flexibility worked well for me, but it depends on the individual. Structure your affairs sustainably, and take good care of yourself. Something I wished I’d done more of, but couldn’t due to logistics, was use the travel stipend more. The times I did travel were wonderful. ICFP is a great opportunity, good luck!

More information about the ICFP program, including how to apply, can be found here: