Shutdown Getdown Debrief – Network Measurement & Research

Thu, 2023-02-23 22:24

Welcome back to OTF’s Shutdown Getdown Debrief series, rounding up some of the outcomes of the October 2022 Shutdown Getdown event, held in Oxford, UK in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute. In our previous blog, we provided an introduction to the Shutdown Getdown, an overview of our conversations about priorities for technology development and usability and design work in shutdown mitigation. In this blog we’ll present a round-up of the conversations we had about shutdown-focused research. We’ll map out the questions that folks in attendance thought needed to be addressed, and will highlight some of the next steps we hope to support the wider community to take forward.

Supporting Shutdown Measurement Efforts

At the Getdown, participants discussed a number of urgent priorities to better detect internet shutdowns when they take place. Although existing network measurement projects are generally able to detect national-level outages, or outages on different nationwide internet providers, other forms of shutdowns and sustained disruptions can be more difficult to detect.

Here are some of the urgent challenges Shutdown Getdown attendees highlighted, and which they’d like to see addressed going forward:

  • Developing reliable methodologies to detect network throttling

Network throttling incidents – where authorities purposefully degrade the quality of internet access – has major effects on users’ ability to access and share media. Network throttling can make it tough to communicate with friends, family and colleagues, and to document and share evidence of human rights violations when they occur.

Throttling is ultimately difficult to quantify, and to distinguish from ‘unintended’ network congestion and poor performance. Although intentional throttling can sometimes be inferred from measurements collected by existing measurement projects and other telemetry data, Getdown attendees spoke about the need to develop methodologies to identify throttling incidents with greater accuracy and reliability.

Any new throttling detection methodologies also need to be responsive to different throttling techniques, such as traffic policing, traffic shaping, and routing-based approaches. Although participants began to explore some potential avenues for throttling detection, more work needs to be done to develop these approaches.

  • Improve shutdown detection by opening up more telemetry data

Although existing measurement projects are able to reliably detect large-scale shutdowns, it’s sometimes been challenging to detect internet shutdowns that take place in smaller geographical areas, such as in specific neighborhoods experiencing protests, or at the provincial or sub-provincial levels, where data sources can be patchier.

While telemetry data from popular search engines, internet browsers and circumvention tools can sometimes provide measurement projects with city-level insights into network availability, even these data sources can be limited in smaller cities and more sparsely populated regions.

Because of this, the Getdown cohort stressed the importance of getting more technology companies to open up their telemetry data, allowing measurement projects to incorporate and aggregate it, and thereby gain further insights into localized disruptions when they occur.

  • Build more connections between network measurement data and political, social, and protest-related data

Some attendees highlighted the disconnectedness of existing data sources, and made the case for better aggregation of shutdown-related data, alongside human rights-related data such as information on political violence or arrests.

Getdown attendees argued that pulling together and cross-referencing all of these data types could allow us to develop our understanding of how shutdowns impact political protest movements and organization. They could even allow internet freedom activists to better predict shutdowns ahead of time, allowing more time for shutdown mitigation plans to be developed and implemented by at-risk community groups and media organizations.

Better Understanding the Needs of Front-Line Communities

A central theme that ran through all three of our working groups’ conversations was around the need for more plentiful, and more rigorous user-focused research. Currently, technologists and digital security trainers do not have all the information they need to properly tailor shutdown resilience tools for end users in a wide variety of different contexts.

Shutdowns are implemented in so many different ways around the world, and experienced in an even larger variety depending on affected individuals’ age, gender, location, and a whole host of other personal factors.

In response, our 2022 Getdown cohort raised the following points as potential priorities for future shutdown research:

  • Develop more focused research to understand how different types of users are affected by internet shutdowns, as well as their behaviors and response strategies.

Significant numbers of people around the world have now experienced the effects of internet shutdowns, and yet our communities of researchers and technologists have only scratched the surface in terms of documenting those experiences, and learning from them.

Attendees of the Shutdown Getdown repeatedly spoke about the need for coordinated, larger-scale research into how users experience shutdowns, and their needs from technology projects in development.

We’ll also pick up this point in more detail in our Design & Usability blog.

  • Undertake more research to understand how effective existing tools are in providing services to users in shutdown-prone environments.

This point is connected to our previous one, but in addition to understanding the needs of end users, more work needs to be undertaken to assess the impact and reach of existing shutdown-resilient services.

Given their often decentralized nature, it’s often been challenging to gain clear insights into the impactfulness of existing peer-to-peer based solutions, or satellite datacasting services. Technologists and researchers at the Shutdown Getdown were keen for further efforts to be made to understand how their technologies are currently being used in contexts experiencing internet shutdowns.

Want to get involved?

If you’ve read this blog and have ideas for how to tackle any of these challenges, then we want to hear from you. If you have an existing project, or a project idea that you’d like to discuss, you can reach out to our team at [email protected] to set up an introductory call.

Alternatively, if you’d like to submit an application for funding to support your work, we’d encourage you to explore our Internet Freedom Fund for opportunities, as well as our Information Controls Fellowship Program, which is available for applications on an annual basis.