Shutdown Getodown Debrief – Mitigating and Preparing for Internet Shutdowns

Tue, 2023-02-28 15:00

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 blogs we explained why we think internet shutdowns pose a grave threat to human rights defenders, journalists, and at-risk users in authoritarian environments, as well as starting to dig into some of the urgent research questions Shutdown Getdown attendees view as priorities.

This week, we turn to the Technology-focused conversations that took place at the event, and will summarize some urgent action points we hope to collaborate with you on in the months ahead.

Further Developing Shutdown Mitigation Technologies

  • Continue to develop alternative network architectures

The progress in developing peer-to-peer messaging tools and decentralized content distribution systems has been encouraging in recent years, but attendees at the Getdown agreed that there was a continued need to build out a diverse set of alternative network architectures – ranging from these peer-to-peer networks, through to ‘sneakernets’ and offline-resilient data repositories.

As shutdowns are implemented in such different ways across different countries, each with different infrastructural contexts, having a diversity of different tools to hand is incredibly important in order to ensure effective mitigation options are available to all.

  • Develop new features to make shutdown-resilient tools attractive outside of worst-case crisis scenarios

While a number of attendees agreed that shutdown mitigation technologies were starting to reach technical maturity, a real challenge continued to exist in making them attractive, usable tools for everyday users. Many shutdown mitigation tools were seen as just that – tools for use by at-risk activists and journalists during crises. They are still not attractive tools for everyday use, and for this reason public adoption remains a real challenge.

As so many tools are based on peer-to-peer functionalities, larger-scale adoption is actually a key aspect of ensuring they are effective and functional during a crisis. If no one else is around to connect with via Bluetooth, then how useful is that feature in a crisis, anyway?

For this reason, attendees agreed that future technical development should focus on building out more attractive feature-sets, at the same time as establishing resilient network architecture. They also discussed the need for developers to look to examples of existing messaging apps, browsers, and other popular apps to get a clearer sense of what features users want and need on a day-to-day basis.

Preparing and Planning for Shutdowns

During the Shutdown Getdown, attendees agreed that while technology development was crucial, that it was equally important to support shutdown preparation, planning and testing initiatives.

Many shutdown mitigation tools are not necessarily the most widely used or intuitive to use, and at-risk activists, journalists, and human rights defenders will not have time to learn how to use different mitigation tools, or figure out a coordinated approach to implement them during a crisis event. Because of this, preparation really is incredibly important.

  • Developing shutdown ‘situation rooms’ for better information sharing when shutdowns hit

There’s a need for shutdown response situation rooms that can provide spaces for technologists, researchers, digital security practitioners and rapid response providers to share experiences on a frequent basis during the early stages of a shutdown event.

While some information sharing has taken place between different circumvention tools, for example during the 2022 protests in Iran, this has happened on a fairly ad hoc basis. Creating more structured mechanisms for information sharing would be a real boon for community crisis response going forward.

  • Shutdown ‘wargaming’ can help build communities’ resilience

Preparation is key for both technologists and other community members. One method of building preparedness discussed over the course of the week was wargaming – bringing together technologists and community members to simulate the events and dynamics of a shutdown event, to expose vulnerabilities and help to develop community response mechanisms.

This could happen remotely, but also at in-person convenings to give civil society, human rights defenders and media organizations the opportunity to test tools in a hands-on way, and start to build out practical shutdown response plans that they could implement in the event of a real shutdown or period of sustained disruption.

  • More coordinated technical simulation and testing could help technologists understand their tools’ effectiveness

Alongside community “wargaming” efforts, there is also utility for technical simulation of different network environments – such as Iran’s National Information Network – so that mitigation tools can be tested more effectively to understand which tools are appropriate for different national and infrastructural contexts.

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.