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May 2019 Monthly Report

In May, 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. This month, OTF announced Laura Cunningham as the program’s new Principal Director. In this role, Laura will lead OTF’s strategic development, long-term planning, and day-to-day operations, enabling OTF to fulfill its mission to support Internet freedom worldwide; read more here.

Notable accomplishments

  • The PyPI Improvements project finished user tests for the first two-factor auth method, a Time-based One-time Password (TOTP), and deployed the service to production, making it available to all PyPI users. PyPI is the official software repository for the Python programming language, which is utilized by many internet freedom projects. Development work continues on WebAuthn-based multi-factor authentication, which will let users use physical tokens like Yubikeys to further secure their accounts. You can read more about the 2FA release in this Python Software Foundation blog post.
  • Working in collaboration with GreatFire, TibCERT (Tibetan Computer Emergency Readiness Team) used the Apple App Store Censorship tool in identifying "29 popular Tibetan mobile applications [censored] in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. Among the censored apps are those from the Dalai Lama, Radio Free Asia, Tibet Times, Tibet.net (website of the Central Tibetan Administration), VOA Tibetan, and Voice of Tibet. See the full list in the article, or explore the app store censorship tool here. GreatFire also added new features to the tool, including the ability to filter findings by genre, see the total number of users of each app and app logos, and display censored apps in order according to global popularity.
  • As part of the Tibetan Computer Emergency Readiness Team (TibCERT)’s RECON project, the Tibet-focused digital security group will have a staff member trained in the IODA (Internet Outage Detection and Analysis) tool, with guidance from the IODA (CAIDA) team. Currently, most network shutdown incidents inside Tibet are anecdotal; IODA provides technical evidence of such incidents, so this resource will be useful for local Tibetan researchers to look up past and future incidents of network shutdown.
  • A new report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) assessed internet accessibility in Nigeria during the country's 2019 general elections, held on February 23rd. The report, produced in collaboration with local digital rights organization Paradigm Initiative, found that most sites tested were accessible during the election period. However, as OONI points out, "old blocks appeared to remain in place," as sites related to the Nigerian secessionist state of Biafra remained blocked, for example. Also this month, OONI published a report looking at China’s recent blocking of Wikipedia in all languages. The country’s Great Firewall has long blocked access to the Chinese-language version (zh.wikipedia.org), but now all languages are blocked, OONI found. See media coverage by BBC, Washington Post, CNBC, SCMP. Throughout May, the OONI Probe mobile app was used to test for censorship and other forms of network interference more than 355,000 times from over 5,000 different vantage points in 215 countries around the world.
  • MassBrowser, a volunteer-driven censorship circumvention tool, announced the release of version 0.1.0, which among other upgrades and fixes features a new browser bundle package that comes with a pre-configured Firefox browser - making the installation and configuration much more user friendly than before. Version 0.1.0 is available for download here.
  • A paper jointly produced by ICFP fellow Valentin Weber in collaboration with Vasilis Ververis (of the Magma project) entitled “Shedding Light on Mobile App Store Censorship” was accepted and presented at APPS (Adaptive and Personalized Privacy and Security), held in conjunction with UMAP 2019, the ACM conference on User Modelling, Adaptation and Personalization. The study focuses on the availability of VPN apps in Russia and China, finding that despite both countries having similarly repressive laws, “most major VPN apps are still available on the Apple and Google app stores in Russia,” while on China’s Apple and Tencent app stores “there are close to none.” Read more about the study in this blog post or access the full paper and associated research components in on GitHub.
  • ICFP fellows Igor Valentovitch and Ksenia Ermoshina published a report analyzing online media filtering in Crimea and Russia during the 2018 Russian presidential elections. While the fellows’ research did not find evidence of increased censorship during the election period, they did find that internet censorship “is experienced differently” in Crimea and Russia, as “the blocking of critical content in both territories is not carried out in a uniform manner by all ISPs,” with the tendency to over-block content “more pronounced in Crimea,” when compared against a Roskomnadzor blacklist. Read more in this blog post or access the full report (pdf).
  • ICFP fellow Alexei Abrahams submitted two papers to academic journals showcasing the use of information manipulation investigation techniques developed during his fellowship, which were used for identifying bots and social media influencers in the Gulf region. The first paper analyzes Twitter conversations during the early months of an ongoing diplomatic dispute between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), presenting evidence of how “state actors manipulate discourse on Twitter through direct intervention, offline coercion or co-optation of existing social-media ‘influencers,’ and the mass production of online statements via automated, ‘fake’ accounts,” while the second analyzes discourse on Twitter during the period when news broke of the assassination of Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, analyzing millions of tweets that included the most popular relevant hashtag on Arabic Twitter (#jamal_khashoggi). Both cases highlight how these tools can be used by researchers to pinpoint developments in the online discourse down to the hour, and through qualitative review, assess their ideological position and background, such as by country of origin. For example, the latter investigation revealed that “a narrow elite of 281 Twitter accounts [drove] 80% of the discourse,” with those accounts broken into “pro-Saudi” or “Saudi-critical” groups centered in countries throughout the region. Access “Social Media Manipulation During the Gulf Crisis (2017 - present) here (pdf) and “Framing a Murder: Twitter Influencers and the Jamal Khashoggi Incident” here (pdf).
  • Several new projects are now under OTF support, including:
    • Ouinet, a free and open source technology which allows web content to be served with the help of an entire network of cooperating nodes using peer-to-peer routing and distributed caching of responses. This helps mitigate the web's characteristic single point of failure due to a client application not being able to connect to a particular server. OTF support will focus on improving the scalability and reliability of the Ouinet library's existing technical components, further enabling the ability of Ouinet to be integrated into existing circumvention tool networks.
    • Tahoe-LAFS, an open source, secure option for file storage, sharing, and management. This two-phase project will focus on deploying Tahoe-LAFS through partnerships with several human rights organizations, enabling them to better protect the sensitive information they handle in their work. The project will ultimately also seek to make it easier for organizations to independently deploy Tahoe-LAFS.
    • Slowdowns as Censorship, a project focused on measuring and countering throttling as a censorship mechanism - a current gap in censorship documentation and mitigation. The project will focus on developing a methodology to measure throttling in this context as well as an anti-throttling tool prototype.

A Red Team Lab-supported security audit of the Streisand VPN and proxy tool conducted by Lab partner Include Security was published and is available on the Streisand GitHub. Streisand is an open source tool that automatically sets up and deploys a VPN server on behalf of users, allowing flexibility around different connection methods with more privacy than is provided by traditional third-party VPN services. The audit identified 15 security risks in total; related fixes implemented by Streisand as a result of the audit can be found on GitHub.

Localization Lab ran localization sprints with digital security trainer and civil rights defenders for Khmer languages, focusing on EFF’s Surveillance Self Defense guides and tools including Outline VPN, CGI Proxy, Psiphon 2, and Orbot. The Lab also prepared for an upcoming Thai language sprint to focus on tools including Tor Browser, Mailvelope and password manager KeePassXC. Throughout May, Lab volunteers translated a total of more than 95,000 words, edited nearly 70,000 words and reviewed more than 41,000 words across all projects on the Localization Lab hub.

Select news collected by OTF from the month of May 2019 - Get the full feed live @OpenTechFund or sign up to receive the OTF newsletter.

Wikipedia petitions ECHR over Turkey ban | BBC
China's robot censors crank up as Tiananmen anniversary nears | Reuters
Bangladesh government blocks news website in fresh blow to media | AFP
Thousands of Websites are collaterally blocked in Egypt | AFTE
Iran Says Its Intranet Almost Ready To Shield Country From 'Harmful' Internet | Radio Farda
How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities | New York Times
How Social Media Taxes Can Burden News Outlets: The Case of Uganda | CIMA
Russian government sets five-year plan for center that would control an isolated RuNet | Meduza
Playing Cat and Mouse With Venezuela’s Internet Censors | Foreign Policy
We Should Worry About How China Uses Apps Like TikTok | New York Times

Projects Mentioned