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September 2019 Monthly Report

In September, 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 continued reviewing and responding to the 170 concept notes received during the September 1 application round; as of writing, 11 applicants have been invited to submit a full proposal.

Notable Accomplishments

  • The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) released a report on the blocking of BBC and Alhurra in Egypt (also in Arabic) amid anti-government protests. In addition to remote technical tests, OONI coordinated with local Egyptian groups to investigate and document the technical means through which the two news sites were blocked, finding “strong indication” that authorities are using DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) technology to block BBC, while SNI (Server Name Indication) filtering was used to block Alhurra. Based off their findings, OONI suggests that implementing encrypted SNI on their backend servers could allow visitors to the BBC and Alhurra websites to circumvent the attempted blocks. BBC and Alhurra join the hundreds of websites blocked by the government in Egypt.
  • Also this month, OONI launched the revamped version 2.0 of OONI Explorer, OONI’s openly accessible data resource tracking Internet censorship around the world. The platform houses millions of censorship measurements from more than 230 countries collected by OONI since 2012, and hundreds of thousands of new measurements are added on a daily basis. You can read more about what’s new and different in the new OONI Explorer in this blog post.
  • ICFP fellow Valentin Weber released his research examining the global spread of repressive surveillance and censorship technologies and techniques from China and Russia to over 100 countries worldwide. Working with Oxford University, Valentin traced the diffusion of Russian and Chinese information controls and techniques through open source research, including data gathered from company reports, technical network measurements, newspaper and journal articles, and government-issued laws and regulations. Valentin’s work was showcased in an event at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an OTF blog post, and in US News & World Report. The Worldwide Web of Chinese and Russian Information Controls is available in full (pdf) in English, Chinese, and Russian.
  • The App Store Censorship project launched a new design of the applecensorship.com website, featuring a new “news” feed for when an app changes status, from available to not available or the other way around. Visitors to the site can check changes by country, to highlight instances of censorship in their location. To learn about these changes in real time, you can follow the project’s new Twitter account, @applecensorship.
  • Four new Information Controls Fellows started their fellowships in September:
    • Babatunde Okunoye will work with the Tor Project to investigate the use of censorship circumvention tools in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe;
    • Esther Rodriguez will work with the University of New Mexico to conduct a security and privacy audit of LINE, a messaging app popular in several Asian countries, including Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia;
    • Shinyoung Cho will work with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to improve the Tor network’s resilience to network-level traffic correlation attacks; and
    • A fellow who will work with the Stratosphere Research Laboratory at the Czech Technical University to research existing and potential circumvention techniques in Egypt.
  • In September, the Localization Lab hosted three translation sprints; two were held in conjunction with the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFA), with one focusing on translating Outline VPN into Amharic, and the other focusing on translating digital security guides into Swahili, while the third sprint focused on introducing a group of professional translators to Internet freedom projects in need of translation. At the sprint, translators contributed content to the Unified Localization Lab Glossary in over 10 languages and translated over 6,000 words.
  • The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFArica) was held from September 23-26 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Community Lab-supported event - hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) - is the premier annual gathering for the Internet freedom community on the continent, bringing together a wide vareity of groups and individuals with expertise in technology, human rights, policy, and digital security to advance collaboration on topics related to free expression online, open access to information, and ensuring the free flow of information online throughout Africa. A report (pdf) summarizing the State of Internet Freedom in Africa over the past 20 years was released prior to the event, while event-specific information can be found here.
  • The Citizen Lab shared a summary of the Citizen Lab Summer Institute (CLSI), a Community Lab-supported event convening “academics, researchers, activists, and frontline workers” working on topics related to human rights and digital security, encouraging collaboration and information-sharing among different groups. The event also acts as a place for OTF’s current Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) cohort to meet in person, discuss their projects, and explore avenues for future research. Attendees actively contributed to ongoing projects during workshops such as by updating and improving test lists used to monitor censorship, while specific topics covered at the event included Network Interference and Freedom of Expression Online, Surveillance and Counter Surveillance, and Gender and Digital Security. You can read more in Citizen Lab’s CLSI 2019 in Review.

Projects Mentioned