Felicia Anthonio: It’s been a crazy month. It feels like you’re living a completely different life than you used to. You have no connection with the outside world. The only news you are getting comes from the government. The same government that has been blocking your Internet access. How can you believe anything they are saying right now? You need to find a way to be back online. You need to find out what’s really happening in your country and in the rest of the world. Luckily, you are not as alone as you thought. You are not powerless. There is a wide network of people across the world working every day to prevent, stop, and circumvent Internet shutdowns just like this one. They can help you take action. They can help you take back the technology that is being used against you. It is time to reclaim your right to uncensored and unblocked Internet access.
In this six-part series, we want to highlight the troubling rise of a new form of antidemocratic oppression spreading across the world: government-created Internet shutdowns. We will be hearing from journalists, activists, and experts who have been fighting to keep the Internet on, all the way from the high court of Sudan to the rural regions of Pakistan.
This is the fourth episode of Kill Switch, an episode all about the tools, tactics, and technology being used to fight back against Internet shutdowns. We will deep dive into the technical side of Internet shutdowns and provide you with some tools to help circumvent government tactics that prevent people from getting online. The first person we talked to is Hassen Selmi from Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline.
Hassen Selmi: Our service is to respond to digital security incidents like a compromised system, compromised DDoS attacks, and Internet shutdowns. We provide 24 by 7 service for members of civil society, and we are a free of charge facility available around the clock.
Anthonio: Amongst all these services, the Digital Security Helpline also assists journalists, activists, human rights and civil society organizations who suddenly find themselves in the middle of an Internet shutdown. But obviously, reaching Hassen becomes a little bit tricky when your Internet is not working.
Selmi: It’s tricky when it comes to Internet shutdowns. Because the affected populations are usually prevented from reaching their email address service, so they can’t send you an email. So in these kinds of cases we usually communicate with what we call intermediaries who are very close to the affected population but usually have access to Internet connection either using circumvention tools or they are outside the country and communicating through available communications.
Anthonio: The amount of help Hassen can offer greatly depends on the type of shutdown.
Selmi: So, if it’s a partial shutdown usually we try to understand how this shutdown is being implemented. You will have to work around the method used to block the content and make the censor blind against your connection. The tools that we usually use are VPN or HTTPS proxy.
Anthonio: A good VPN, or virtual private network, is the first line of defense against a social media blocking. What a VPN does is it redirects your connection to the Internet through a remote server run by the VPN provider. This masks your own computer’s physical location and allows it to bypass blocking. In most cases, it also adds a layer of privacy and security to your Internet connection. But all VPNs are not created equally. In the booming VPN marketplace, it is important not to just pick the first VPN service that you come across. Hassen explains how you can make sure you pick a trustworthy VPN.
Selmi: First question, is the tool open source. This means you are able to see the code and it’s available online for anyone to read and understand how this tool works.
Anthonio: The second criteria is to see if it has received an independent security audit.
Selmi: Most of the users are not skilled enough technically to understand the code. So in addition to open source code we need also trusted expert auditors to look into the code and make sure that it’s secure and that it’s not leaking any information.
Anthonio: As Hassen explains, even though a VPN can promise you protection, many of these supposedly secure platforms actually record user data on their own service. What if the government forces them to hand over those records if they want to continue operating in their country?
Selmi: The thing is that whenever you connect to a VPN, you really put a lot of trust in that VPN provider because all your traffic will go through that VPN. So the VPN provider could record a lot of information about you.
Anthonio: Hassen explains that accessibility is also an important criteria for picking a VPN. Which VPNs are available in your country, and do they actually work?
Selmi: In many years of shutdowns, we saw that VPN servers are also targeted by shutdowns. Which means that who applies the shutdowns also targets VPN servers to block the use of them.
Anthonio: For this reason, the Digital Security Helpline recommends setting up your own personal VPN server outside of the country.
Selmi: There is a lot of software that you can use to set up your VPN servers. And usually those VPNs won’t be known to the censors, as they are not public, and they won’t be able to block because they don’t know the domain or the IP of that VPN server.
Anthonio: These things might sound very difficult to figure out by yourself. Luckily, the Digital Security Helpline is there to assist you.
Selmi: So we can help people get access to those tools, and we can also assist which servers of the public VPNs are available. VPNs that we at the Helpline trust and that the community trusts are being continuously audited, and their code is available online.
Anthonio: But VPNs also have a drawback. In countries where Internet connection is slow, or the infrastructure is not strong, VPNs can make your connections even slower.
Another drawback is that VPNs only work for partial shutdowns, social media blocking, or web site censorship. When the government decides to cut off all access to the Internet, things get a bit more complicated.
Selmi: So the tools that are available to be used with full Internet shutdowns are usually very expensive or require some difficult technical preparation when the shutdown happens.
Anthonio: Solutions to get back online include things like setting up a satellite connection.
Selmi: Satellite connections are expensive, slow, and usually not trusted.
Anthonio: There is another ingenious way to get back online.
Selmi: The second solution could be to use international SIM cards with roaming, but it’s also expensive and come with a [logistic?] challenge, especially in terms of how to deliver those SIM cards, so preparation is always important.
Anthonio: During the recent shutdown in Sudan, a SIM card exchange scheme seemed to work.
Selmi: People in the last Sudan blackout connected with their relatives who could send them SIM cards via simple mail. Those SIM cards came from countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, [Emirates?]. And they were able to connect to Internet using roaming and mobile data. And they were able to report from countries where a complete shutdown was happening to a point that some countries started to block those SIM cards, but also some authorities decided to monitor those communications and report them to the Sudanese government, and this led to some arrests.
Anthonio: This is, Hassen explains, one of the most important yet often overlooked factors to take into consideration during a shutdown. Getting online is not the only measure of success. You also need to protect yourself from monitoring, surveillance, and possible consequent persecution.
Selmi: To say that the circumvention succeeded doesn’t mean that you just get access to the censored data or content. You need to do that while you are really protecting your communications, protecting your identity. You really need to secure yourself and secure your identity online when attempting to bypass the shutdown. Because otherwise, it could really result in you being in troubles and other people around you, like your contacts, getting into trouble or being arrested.
Anthonio: Before any action can be taken against a shutdown, we first need to know what we are dealing with. How do we know exactly when a shutdown is taking place, what kind of shutdown, and which regions are affected? Is this a partial shutdown, a slowdown, a social media blackout, or targeted web page censorship? Is this regional, national, or just in your district? Maria Xynou works on answering these questions at the Open Observatory of Network Interference, or OONI for short.
Maria Xynou: OONI’s a free software project where we measure Internet censorship around the world. And as part of my role with OONI I manage our research and community engagement efforts.
Anthonio: OONI started as an initiative that could help identify, track, and report on different kinds of Internet censorships or shutdowns.
Xynou: The OONI project was born out of the Tor project back in 2011. It was started by Tor developers at the time who essentially wanted to create the first open methodologies and the first free and open source software that anyone around the world could run in order to measure Internet censorship.
Anthonio: OONI is powered by user-generated data. They created free open source tools such as OONI Probe to source and correlate network connectivity data from around the world.
Xynou: In order to understand what is happening on the Internet, you literally would have to inspect and measure every single network on the Internet, given that the Internet is not one network but hundreds of thousands of many different networks. And so in order to be able to know what is blocked all around the world, the question is that of crowdsourcing the data, crowdsourcing the measurements, collecting them in a centralized way, and then publishing them so that everyone around the world can have access to these measurements.
And so that is why the OONI system was designed in the way that was, where essentially the way that it would work is that anyone could use the tools for free and run tests to measure the network, and then the results from their testing would be automatically sent to OONI servers where would it be automatically processed and automatically published.
Anthonio: But how exactly does OONI work? As Maria explains, it is quite fascinating.
Xynou: If you want to contribute measurements, you can do that by running OONI Probe. OONI Probe is available for both mobile and desktop platforms. On mobile you can install it on Android and iOS, and it’s also available for F‑Droid. On desktop you can install OONI Probe on Windows, on Mac, and on Linux.
Anthonio: The free and open source OONI Probe application has a range of tests that you can run on your own network in order to contribute data and measurements to the OONI database.
Xynou: One type of test is that which measures the blocking of web sites. The way it works is that our test performs certain types of checks, and it performs those checks automatically over two vantage points. One vantage points is yours as the user. The other one is a control vantage point which we consider to be a non-censored network. And so it performs these three checks from both networks, and it automatically compares the results. If one of the checks from one of the two networks differs, then that is a signal that there may be blocking happening. But a confirmation would have to happen manually.
Anthonio: You can almost think of OONI as part of the Internet’s immune system, sending real-time alerts whenever it detects an anomaly or a threatening interference. It is only when an alert is sent that we can react.
Xynou: In fact, confirming a case of intentional censorship on the Internet can be very tricky. It can be very tricky to confirm unless you perform measurement on the network level. And because it can be so tricky and because there are so many reasons why web sites and apps and different Internet services can be inaccessible which may have nothing to do with intentional government censorship, that is why governments can then seek plausible deniability. In other words they can deny that they intentionally shut down access to specific services.
Anthonio: Intervention and circumvention of Internet shutdowns can only happen if we know a shutdown is taking place, or about to take place. For that, we need accurate and timely data.
Xynou: Our goal has been that of openly publishing measurements on an ongoing basis so that we can increase transparency of Internet censorship around the world. But also so that we can enable third parties to independently investigate cases of Internet censorship and to independently verify any claims or findings that we communicate through our research reports.
Anthonio: Each disruption of network connectivity leaves a measurable trace. By recording these traces of disruption, OONI can create data-driven reports to increase transparency of Internet censorship to support advocacy efforts.
Xynou: In order for human rights activists and in order for human rights defenders to challenge governments and to charge them legally that they’re intentionally blocking access to specific services, they need to have evidence. And when you’re talking about Internet censorship which is implemented on the network level, I think the only real evidence you can have is that of network measurement. That which literally looks at what is happening on the network and shows how an ISP is blocking access to a specific web site. So that’s the sort of raw data that I think can sometimes almost undeniably serve as evidence of blocking. And so I feel as extremely valuable data to support campaigns and to support advocacy efforts against Internet shutdowns, and which can potentially even help win cases in court.
Anthonio: Collecting data is just one part of the puzzle. The other part of the puzzle is making the data available in a way that is useful to digital rights activists, organizations, and journalists.
Xynou: So, OONI measurements are published in primarily two places. One place is called OONI Explorer, which is a web platform which is designed with human rights defenders in mind, and the general public. By using OONI Explorer, you can search through the measurements. There’s a web interface that enables you to filter the measurements based on the country that you’re interested in, based on the OONI Probe test that you care about
Anthonio: In near real-time, they analyze and openly publish all their network measurements, creating what is arguably the largest publicly-available resource on Internet censorship and shutdowns to date.
Xynou: Every month, we collect on average hundreds of thousands of measurements from around 210 countries around the world. And these are from tens of thousands of different networks, providing insight on the potential blocking of web sites, measuring the blocking of instant messaging apps, circumvention tools, and a number of other tests. And so we feel that this large data set provides insight on all these different types of network interference. And so we definitely encourage data analysts and researchers and human rights advocates out there to make use of this data and to uncover cases of Internet censorship that we may not be aware of and to bring them to the public in order to encourage more public discussion around these cases.
Anthonio: The Internet exists as a collection of nodes, hubs, and networked computers. Similarly the fight against Internet shutdowns relies on a network of tools, tactics, people, and organizations, all working together. Part of OONI’s work is to run a partnership program through which local organizations can contribute and also use OONI’s data in the fight against Internet shutdowns and censorship in their regions. One of these partners is Venezuela Sin Filtro.
Andres Azpurua: Venezuela Sin Filtro is the project that analyzes and documents the systematic and egregious human rights violations in the digital space. So, primarily we document, almost in real-time when we can, Internet censorship events. So Venezuela Sin Filtro has multiple ways of identifying and documenting censorship, but the most important one for us is using OONI.
Anthonio: This is Andres Azpurua, who lives and works in Caracas, Venezuela.
Azpurua: I work in Venezuela doing research and advocacy against Internet censorship, including Internet blocks, Internet shutdowns, and we also try to document other kinds of egregious violations of human rights online. So we do documentation and analysis on state-sponsored threats in Venezuela against citizens, activists, journalists, and so on.
Anthonio: What makes Venezuela a unique case is that the government controls most of the essential infrastructures in the country. This includes the main Internet service provider, or ISP, in the country, CANTV.
Azpurua: So Venezuela, most online Internet connections are with CANTV. It’s one of the capacities to control that the government has. Because even though all mobile ISPs and mobile operators implement the censorship that they are required to implement by the telecom regulators, CANTV—the state-owned ISP—I mean, they go far beyond that. They do these kinds of real-time blocking that is not the same that they require of the other ones. Because in some cases, the other ones don’t even have the technology to implement such kinds of blocking.
Anthonio: Their control over Internet access allows the government to create very targeted Internet blocks.
Azpurua: So we started to see what we call SNI filtering in 2018, where even encrypted connections could be blocked. Picking individual packages apart and understanding how the initial connection was being made between your computer or a phone and the server you wanted to talk to. That same year we also saw the first time the Venezuelan government blocked the Tor network. So people using Tor Browser or using Tor in other ways—they could be using it for anonymity or to circumvent other kinds of censorship. That was a wake-up call on interest in increasingly-sophisticated censorship and attacks in Venezuela, and we were not wrong.
Anthonio: Although these are not full shutdowns, micro-targeted blocks inhibit people from accessing the information they need at the time that they need it most.
Azpurua: Yeah so, in Venezuela the problem of Internet censorship is interesting and complex. It’s not a matter of whether someday a new kind of web site is being blocked. It’s far more complex. We have short Internet blocks that last just twenty minutes. But in that twenty minutes is the twenty minutes that affected most people’s access just when the news was the most relevant.
Anthonio: When people finally get online, they need to find ways to access censored content. News sites have found ingenious ways to help people share censored information.
Azpurua: So you have a community of journalists and independent news organizations that try to find different ways to get the news to their audiences. So instead of just publishing on their web site and letting people come to them, they know that they can’t do that anymore. So we have stuff like WhatsApp groups, and Telegram groups, where individual journalists or even the newspapers, the online news organizations, coordinate those groups so that they can share information in different ways. Stuff like taking pictures of their content so that people can share that image on social media without having to get to the news web site itself, which is blocked. So at least they get a brief version of that content.
Anthonio: On the other hand, users are also finding ways to access blocked information online.
Azpurua: Most people try to use a VPN. And you have like, networks of people trying to help each other connect to the VPNs, but those have problems of poverty and lack of access to payment methods abroad and just…I mean the Venezuelan minimum wage is $4 per month. Imagine how many people can’t afford just an online VPN server they have to pay for. So like, finding information—what are the free options or [indistinct phrase] work for them. That’s one of the reasons why we had to set up this tutorial. One is to give a clear, recommended, safe and secure option. And the other one is to help people how to connect. Because in Venezuela it’s something that everyone needs. Even your uncle or your grandfather need a VPN so they can connect to news web sites and see their news. So that’s why we had to set this up.
Anthonio: One of the things that Andres and Venezuela Inteligente do is to publish friendly, informative, and easy to understand videos about circumvention tools and tactics.
Azpurua: The tutorial videos started very recently. We have just started two weeks ago, and since then have been releasing one weekly. We distribute them mostly over social media. So we have them on YouTube at Conexión Segura. So you find Conexión Segura, which translates to “secure connection.” So we’re covering the very basics like how to use a VPN to avoid censorship. This is how you open an app store; this is how you download it; now you click here; now you have to give permissions. Stuff like that so that no one gets like, trapped because of their basic digital capacities or digital literacy. And they can still connect to the Internet and watch censored information.
Anthonio: Where there is a will to remain connected, there is a way to regain access.
Azpurua: In Venezuela that’s the last place for free expression. Even though we see all of this censorship and all of these limitations and risks I’ve been mentioning, the Internet continues to be the last, only place where people can freely criticize the government and share news that might be undesirable to the government. Even with all of this, it’s the only place that we can prepare, have tools, and have techniques to overcome those risks and those limitations and continue to connect.
Anthonio: Unlike in Venezuela where Internet censorship and shutdowns only really saw an uptake in recent years, on the other side of the world we find Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long history of Internet censorship and shutdowns and has emerged as one of the nations with the most-sophisticated arsenal for domestic Internet monitoring and control.
Amir Rashidi: My name is Amir, Amir Rashidi. I’m an Internet security and digital rights researcher. Recently I joined the organization named [Neon?] as the director of Internet security and digital rights. And my main focus in the past ten years was on monitoring the situation of Internet in Iran, cyber attacks, censorship, Internet disruption and shutdowns in Iran.
Anthonio: Amir is currently working and living in the USA, having fled his home country in 2019. For the last ten years, he has been working fervently to measure, document, and intervene in censorship and shutdowns in Iran. To help us understand the situation in Iran, Amir will give us a brief history of the Internet.
Rashidi: I would say Internet censorship was born in Iran almost on the same day that the Internet became available in Iran. This is the time that access to the Internet was through dial-up networks.
Anthonio: But even back then, the Iranian government had already started formalizing and institutionalizing their absolute control over the Internet.
Rashidi: So, when the Iranian authorities were faced and challenged with publishing articles on blogs, they tried to basically create an institute and bodies and passed the laws creating policies to control the information flow on Internet. At the beginning of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, they started to create a project that at the beginning they used to call it Halal Internet. Finally they called it National Information Network, NIN.
Anthonio: The NIN, or National Information Network, was an idea for a national intranet that would replace access to global Internet in Iran.
Rashidi: The basic idea back then, especially during Ahmadinejad, was creating a wall around Iran and basically disconnecting Iran from the rest of the world.
Anthonio: But Ahmadinejad did not understand that without connection to the outside world, a national intranet would never be able to replace the Internet. The next president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, knew just how important connecting to the global Internet was if Iran was to keep up with other countries.
Rashidi: So, when Rouhani came to power, his basic idea was engaging with the rest of the world. Was negotiating with the rest of the world to solve the political problem and create jobs and more economic opportunity for the people. He did something good. For example, I do believe it was almost the first or the second month of his presidency—I mean Rouhani—he revoked a law that was passed by Ahmadinejad’s government which basically prohibited having access to the fast Internet.
Anthonio: But Rouhani, who had a background of national security, also knew that the failed National Information Network project could be the most sophisticated mechanism of state control in the country’s history.
Rashidi: So what was he did was, finishing the project that Ahmadinejad actually started, the national intranet. So he basically created that wall but…it’s like he created the wall but at the same time he kept some gates open for communication with the rest of the world.
Anthonio: Basically what that means is that Rouhani’s government created a state-controlled network in Iran, and only through that controlled network could people connected to the global Internet.
Rashidi: Imagine you are in your office and you have access to the Internet. It’s like there is an internal network inside your office… That you have access to your mail server, your own mail server inside the office; you have access to your own databases inside the office. But also there is one gate that you can access the global Internet as well.
Anthonio: This allows Rouhani’s government to shut down access to global Internet but keep all the internal networks active. It is a shutdown of a new kind. It is a shutdown that allows a country to keep functioning relatively normal while Internet access remains blocked.
Rashidi: We saw it in November’s shutdown that that network was working and working very well. And this is the current situation of Internet in Iran. So it’s quite unique because most of the countries that do Internet shutdowns, they don’t have a local network inside the country so when they shut down the Internet, everything is gonna be shut down. But in Iran when they shut down the Internet, the local services—local mail server, local search engine, local Uber-type online taxis… And you know, all of these services which are local are operating, but you don’t have access to the global Internet.
Anthonio: Amir says that Iran will never be able to emulate China’s national intranet, the Great Firewall of China, because the Iranian people refuse to remain cut off from the rest of the world.
Rashidi: Circumventing Internet censorship is happening like it was happening in the past. But again, because we have a really long historical record of Internet censorship in Iran, almost everyone in Iran knows how to bypass the censorship. Tor available, Tor is really slow but it’s available. Psiphon is available. Google Outline is available. Yeah, everyone is using VPNs and circumvention tools, different circumvention tools that are available in Iran. Even my mom knows how to bypass the censorship because like it’s…I don’t know how long, it’s like maybe more than twenty years that we are dealing with the censorship.
Anthonio: But these circumvention tools do not help much when Rouhani’s government decides to close the gates between the national intranet and the global Internet.
Rashidi: The most fear in Iran is the fear of another shutdown. Every time that we have disruption in Iran, that even that disruption might be some technical problem, if you look at the Farsi Twitter, all of the Iranian people inside Iran, they’re asking, “Are they going to shut down the Internet again? Is it happening again?” So the fear atmosphere is really damaging the social and mental life of Iran.
Anthonio: Iran, a country with one of the most advanced cybersecurity arsenals in the world is setting a precedent and becoming an example for other repressive regimes. This new form of kill switch doesn’t disrupt a national economy or information network. Yet still, citizens are cut off from the rest of the world. But as we see around the world, people are determined to remain connected. As the government created more sophisticated tools, activists, engineers, and ordinary people are doing your best to keep up and keep themselves online.
In the next episode of Kill Switch, we talk to human rights defenders and advocates about the challenges they face due to these Internet shutdowns.
For more information about how to support the KeepItOn coalition and our work, visit our web site, www.accessnow.org. This podcast was produced by Access Now and Volume, with funding support from Internews. Our music is by Oman Morí. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and share as widely as possible to help the fight against Internet shutdowns. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been listening to Kill Switch. Goodbye and remember to Keep It On.