How Pakistan blocked news outlets, social media sites, and IM apps amidst protests

Last weekend, a number of social media sites and news outlets were blocked in Pakistan during Islamist protests. Protesters gathered in Islamabad alleged that Mr. Zahid Hamid, the Federal Law Minister, should be removed from his position because he omitted a reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill. On Saturday, 25th November 2017, law enforcement agencies initiated an operation to disperse the sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange linking Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

As information about the government operation was reported by the media, protests spread across the country, literally jamming roads and closing businesses. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) prohibited live coverage of the operation at Faizabad, leading to governmental blocking of social media sites and online news channels.

In this post, we provide technical evidence of observed censorship events. We share OONI network measurement data collected from Pakistan, confirming the DNS-based blocking of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. We confirm the DNS blocking of 14 news websites, as well as the censorship of applications including Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and WhatsApp’s web interface. All of these censorship events were temporarily implemented last weekend, and are no longer in place.

Read the full report here.

Publication date: 29th November 2017

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) & Bytes for All, Pakistan

Investigating internet censorship with OONI data

It’s easy to notice when popular platforms that we commonly use – like Google, WhatsApp, or Facebook – are blocked. The not-so-easy part is noticing the censorship of all those other, less popular platforms, such as the sites of minority groups. Due to their sensitive nature, minority group sites are probably more likely to be blocked. But who’s monitoring the accessibility of such sites on a daily basis?

Many cases of internet censorship around the world can go unnoticed. This is even more true when it’s not clear if a site or service has intentionally been blocked or not. The fact that you cannot access a website may not necessarily mean that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is blocking access to it. Maybe the site owner is blocking all IP addresses originating from your country (in compliance with laws and regulations), or maybe the site itself is being hosted on an unreliable server. There are many reasons why you may not be able to access a website. But ultimately, this means that governments and/or ISPs can potentially seek plausible deniability, particularly when it’s not obvious that a site has been blocked (if you don’t see a blockpage, for example).

Knowing whether an internet resource has intentionally been blocked is important. It’s the first step in understanding whether information controls are being implemented in the digital world. This level of transparency is essential because it can support public debate on the legality and ethics around internet censorship, which obviously vary from country to country.

We no longer need to solely trust our local governments and ISPs to limit internet censorship to that which is “legally proportionate”. Now, we can all measure networks and collect data that shows what is blocked, how, when, and by whom. This is possible with a free software tool, called OONI Probe.

Read the rest of the article here.

Publication date: 25th October 2017

Publisher: Data Driven Journalism

OONI Team Meeting: Montreal 2017

Right before the Tor meeting, the OONI team gathered in Montreal for a 4-day meeting to reflect, regroup, hack, and plan.

This post shares information from our meeting and future plans with the broader community. All session notes are available on GitHub.

Read this post here.

Publication date: 20th October 2017

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)

Internet Censorship in Pakistan: Findings from 2014 to 2017

We confirm detection of 210 blocked URLs in Pakistan. Explicit blockpages were observed for many of these URLs, while others were blocked by means of DNS tampering.

Many of the blocked URLs are considered blasphemous under Pakistan’s Penal Code for hosting content related to the controversial “Draw Mohammed Day” campaign. Geopolitical power dynamics appear to be reinforced through the blocking of sites run by ethnic minority groups.

Pakistani ISPs appear to be applying “smart filters”, selectively blocking access to specific web pages hosted on the unencrypted HTTP version of sites, rather than blocking access to entire domains. Overall, we only found ISPs to be blocking the HTTP version of sites, potentially enabling censorship circumvention over HTTPS (for sites that support encrypted HTTPS connections).

On a positive note, popular communications apps, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, were accessible during the testing period. We find that the Tor network, which enables its users to browse the web anonymously, was mostly accessible.

Read the full report here.

Publication date: 18th October 2017

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference & Bytes for All Pakistan

Evidence of Internet Censorship during Catalonia’s Independence Referendum

We confirm the blocking of at least 25 sites related to the Catalan referendum by means of DNS tampering and HTTP blocking, based on OONI Probe network measurements collected from three local networks. OONI data shows that these sites were blocked every day from (at least) 25th September 2017 (when the testing started) leading up to the referendum day, on 1st October 2017.

Learn more here.

Publication date: 3rd October 2017

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Virtual Road/Qurium

Internet Censorship in Iran: Findings from 2014 to 2017

Thousands of ooniprobe network measurements collected from 60 local networks across Iran over the last three years have confirmed the blocking of 886 domains.

Read the full research report here.

Publication date: 28th September 2017

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference, Article19, ASL19, Small Media

OONI Run: Let’s fight internet censorship together!

OONI released OONI Run, a website linked to an exciting new OONI Probe mobile app feature that enables you to:

  • Engage your friends (and the world) to run censorship measurement tests
  • Monitor the blocking of your website around the world

OONI Run includes a variety of OONI Probe software testsdesigned to:

By choosing the tests that interest you and the sites you want to test, generate a link via OONI Run and share it. Alternatively, embed the widget code to monitor the accessibility of your site. The global OONI Probe community can then respond!

Learn more here.

Publication date: 27th September 2017

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)

Report: Measuring Internet Censorship in Cuba’s ParkNets

Image by Arturo Filastò (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

OONI network measurement data, collected from eight vantage points across three Cuban cities between 29th May 2017 to 10th June 2017, confirms the blocking of 41 websites. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which we suspect to be located in Havana, was used to reset connections to those sites and serve (blank) block pages. Only the HTTP version of those sites was blocked, potentially enabling users to circumvent the censorship by merely accessing them over HTTPS.

Most of the blocked sites have one main thing in common: they express criticism towards the Castro regime, directly or indirectly.

Skype was the only popular communications tool that we found to be blocked. Other popular platforms, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, were accessible across Cuba. While some web proxies were found to be blocked, the Tor network was accessible during the testing period of this study.

Chinese vendor Huawei was found to be supporting Cuba’s internet infrastructure. While it is clear that Cuba is using Huawei’s access points, it remains unclear whether and to what extent Huawei equipment is actually being used to implement internet censorship in the country.

Apart from government censorship, a major source of content blocking originated from external publishers. During the testing period, we found that Google disallowed access to its App Engine service from Cuban users.

The high cost of the internet (especially in comparison to local salaries) and the limited availability of wifi hotspotsacross Cuba remain the main barriers to accessing the internet.

Read the full research report here.

Publisher: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)

Publication date: 28th August 2017

Measuring Internet Censorship in Cuba’s ParkNets

Last May, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) team visited Cuba. We ran a variety of network measurement tests in Havana, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba with the aim of measuring internet censorship.

This post provides an overview of our study.

Read the post here.

Publisher: The Tor Project

Publication date: 28th August 2017

Measuring the Internet for Freedom

Internet censorship enables governments to manipulate public discourse and erode citizens’ rights. But a five-year-old software program called ooniprobe allows users to fight back.

Read this commentary here.

Publication date: 22nd August 2017

Publisher: Project Syndicate