OTF Debrief – Introducing the Shutdown Getdown

Thu, 2023-02-16 17:02

In October 2022, OTF brought together a group of around 50 technologists, researchers, usability experts, and digital security practitioners to the Shutdown Getdown; a problem-solving gathering hosted in Oxford, United Kingdom in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute.

At this event, we wanted to create space for this interdisciplinary group to dig into the urgent questions surrounding one of the biggest threats to internet freedom today: internet shutdowns.

Through this four-part “Shutdown Getdown” blog series, we’d like to share some of the outcomes of the event with you, and hopefully spark more thought and discussion around how to respond to authoritarian states’ use of these highly sophisticated, indiscriminate, and often tough-to-counter forms of information controls.

In this series we’ll explore the following issues:

1 – In our first blog, we’ll explain how OTF understands the threats posed of internet shutdowns and how we’re supporting technologists, researchers and digital security experts to tackle them;

2 – In our second blog, we’ll pick up on the Research-focused conversations that ran through the Getdown. We’ll build a picture of the ongoing work to measure and monitor shutdowns, and to provide an understanding of how shutdowns affect journalists, organizers, human rights defenders, and vulnerable communities globally;

3 – In our third blog, we’ll dig deeper into some of the Technology Development projects building out alternative, shutdown-resilient network infrastructures to sustain communications during shutdowns, and will talk about some of the difficulties in testing and deploying them;

4 – In our final blog, we’ll wrap up by discussing some of the Usability and Design challenges limiting the adoption of shutdown resilience tools. We’ll talk about the need for more user research and case studies, and consider what resources are needed to help tools reach the users who need them.

Why are shutdowns such an urgent challenge?

As the #KeepItOn campaign and their network of partners has demonstrated, governments are increasingly imposing information controls that go far beyond the blocking or filtering of specific web content, applications, or online services. Whether in response to elections, protests, political crises, or events as innocuous as nationwide exams, governments are frequently taking the decision to impose large-scale internet shutdowns on their populations.

Internet shutdowns take a number of different forms, but can be generally described as disruptions that are imposed or directed by state authorities, which indiscriminately limit or wholly restrict access to the global Internet.

These could look like total internet blackouts, where the internet is shut off at either international gateways or the ISP-level, or they could take the form of long-term throttling where services are degraded and slowed to make the internet effectively unusable. They could also look like mass-blocking events, where communications platforms and circumvention technologies are filtered in such a comprehensive and coordinated way so as to make the free and open internet unreachable.

Some states have even invested in entire parallel “national internet” infrastructure, such as Iran, where domestically hosted services have remained up while shutdowns and restrictions are imposed on international traffic.

The reality is that no two internet shutdowns look entirely the same; states impose them in different ways, using different technical methods, on different internet infrastructure. As a result, there are no easy fixes, and no one-size-fits-all solutions.

In response, OTF sees an urgent need to develop a wide and diverse ecosystem of shutdown resilience projects, grounded in robust research into how shutdowns are technically implemented, and how they’re experienced by end users struggling to get online.

We also want to support the frontline digital security practitioners working to deploy these new technologies with the at-risk communities that need them, to help them prepare for these outages before they hit.

We’re interested in supporting all of this work through OTF’s Internet Freedom Fund – if you have an idea, we’d encourage you to check out our Application Guidebook and submit a concept note!

Why we organized the Shutdown Getdown, and next steps

OTF has been supporting a number of the pioneering research and technology efforts working to counteract shutdowns for some time now. Coming out of the pandemic, we saw an important opportunity to bring some of the projects we’re funding together to collaborate, to share notes on their successes, and to identify some common challenges that are limiting the wider take-up of shutdown resilience tools.

In the same way that campaigns like #KeepItOn are coordinating efforts to counter internet shutdowns through advocacy, we hope that events like the Shutdown Getdown are able to provide important spaces for technologists, researchers and usability experts to coordinate and organize against this challenge.

Our blog series will provide a run-down of the first Shutdown Getdown cohort’s insights, and hopes to offer some pointers to individuals and organizations working on the front lines to detect, mitigate, and organize against internet shutdowns wherever they are being imposed.

This was the first time OTF put together an event focused on addressing a particular thematic challenge (we usually only organize annual OTF Summit events). We’ll be working to ensure that the conversations that emerged during the event can continue at the upcoming Summit, and are sustained at other internet freedom community spaces over the course of the year.

Although we organized this first event ourselves, we invite other folks to set up their own shutdowns-focused gatherings if they have their own vision for how these spaces could best support their communities. OTF is very interested in supporting community convenings to bring researchers, technologists, digital security experts and civil society organizations together to organize and prepare for shutdowns before they hit.

How can you get involved?

OTF will continue to support shutdown response and preparation work in the months ahead, and we’re very eager to speak with more folks in the community who are organizing in response to this threat.

If you’d like to set up a chat about your work to prepare for, research, or mitigate the effects of internet shutdowns, then feel free to reach out to our team at [email protected]. We’d be happy to set up a call to discuss your work, and to see if there are ways we could support you to take it forward.

We welcome applications to develop applied research, technology development, community convenings and shutdown preparation efforts via our Internet Freedom Fund.

In our next blog, we’ll jump into some of the research-focused conversations we had at the Shutdown Getdown itself, and will round up some of the ideas our group had about how to lay the foundations for this ecosystem of shutdown resilience tools, research and measurement efforts, and to respond to this threat in a more coordinated way.