New technological tools mean new ways to implement censorship in society. However, new tools also mean new ways to reveal censorship, and denounce it. For example, when the Internet was born, Internet censorship was born as well. But then came OONI.
OONI is a software project. It was created almost six years ago with the aim of empowering de-centralised efforts around the world to monitor internet censorship. Thanks to OONI, everyone around the world, even non-technical users, have the possibility to test the network and collect data to inspect which websites and applications work and which don’t work.
The software automatically collects, analyses and publishes network measurement data that is specific to examining internet censorship. OONI Probe includes a variety of software tests designed to measure the blocking of websites, instant messaging apps, circumvention tools, and others designed to find middleboxes. OONI recently integrated tests which measure the speed and performance of networks, as well as video streaming performance.
I wanted to know more about potentials and risks of what sounded to me like a promising project and talked to Maria Xynou, Research and Partnership Coordinator at OONI. Our chat revolved around issues about minority groups, the Catalan Referendum, and arose interesting reflections on the nuanced nature of censorship.
How do you even define internet censorship?
That is a great question because there is a lot of variation about what constitutes censorship. Generally, at OONI, we consider internet censorship the intentional means of preventing access to internet resources. And the keyword here is that this is intentional. If an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is intentionally preventing you from accessing a specific website or app, we consider that censorship.
Why do you think we need a software like OONI in our society?
The reason why we think it’s important to publish data is because we aim to increase transparency of internet censorship around the world. By publishing the data, we are providing researchers the opportunity to examine our methodology and to verify our findings. We also hope that journalists can benefit from the published data and use it as part of their reporting, particularly since evidence is necessary when challenging those in power. We envision a type of world where everyone has the opportunity to examine information controls.
Is OONI completely safe for its users?
OONI has been a community-driven project since the beginning and our software has been designed with users’ privacy in mind. That said, OONI Probe is not a privacy tool, but rather a tool for investigations. And like any tool that can be used for investigations, it may pose some potential risks. We only collect data that is necessary for examining cases of internet censorship. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to accurately measure a network while being anonymous. Practically speaking, your local government or ISP would be able to see that you are running OONI probe, and this might pose some risk to some users (particularly in high-risk environments).
So you don’t know of any cases of anyone running OONI probe who had issues with governments?
To our knowledge, none of our users have ever gotten into trouble as a result of running OONI Probe.
Can you bring any remarkable examples of findings that you made thanks to OONI?
We have come across multiple cases where the sites of minority groups were blocked around the world. It’s easy to notice censorship when major platforms that we commonly use are blocked. It’s easy to notice when Whatsapp, for example, is blocked, but it may not necessarily be obvious when the sites of minority groups are blocked. Who is monitoring if a certain LGBT site is accessible every day? Or the website of a religious group or of an ethnic minority? Those sites, because of their sensitive nature, are more likely to be blocked. And their blocking is also the least likely for us to notice. I think this is very interesting, because in order for us to claim that we have some form of democracy, we need to make sure that the voices of minorities are also heard.
Did you find some countries where censorship is much heavier than in others?
I think it’s very hard to compare different countries because the amount of data that we are collecting is not equal across all countries around the world. In some countries OONI-Probe is only from in a few vantage points, while in other countries, we may be collecting far more data from many more vantage points. This varies from country to country, and it depends on our community members and where and when they choose to run OONI Probe. So there’s a lot of variance. And this variance limits our ability to accurately compare censorship across countries. Another aspect is that censorship can be legally justified based on the countries laws and regulations, political motivations, or social and cultural norms. And all these things vary from country to country. So we cannot really compare censorship from one country to another.
True, the very definition of censorship changes from country to country! Also, we tend to think that the situation of censorship in our Western democracies is not too bad. But is it?
Recently we saw cases of politically motivated censorship in Europe, particularly in regards to the blocking of sites related to the Catalan referendum. The blocking of these sites was ordered by the Spanish Constitutional Court. I think this is one of the most noticeable cases of censorship in Europe. The court declared the referendum illegal, providing some form of legal justification to the blocking of sites related to the referendum. By reporting on this case, our aim was not to take a position on this very sensitive political issue. We acknowledge that there is legal backing and that even Catalans are divided on the question of independence. Rather, by publishing our report, we aimed to support public debate by providing data that can serve as evidence of what and how was blocked. Questions around the legality and ethics of this kind of censorship are important, but they quite are out of scope for OONI.
Some people may argue that sometimes providing data can also have negative consequences. I am thinking about the company Cambridge Analytica, which claimed that they let Donald Trump win by providing data to the candidates shaping the public discourse explicitly. I don’t know what you think about that. Is it possible that in some cases providing data can harm?
Hiding information can also potentially cause harm. Your question is interesting, and it’s one that we are thinking about on an ongoing base. I don’t think that our work is comparable to the Cambridge Analytica case, particularly since we collect very different types of data, work with different types of groups, and serve very different goals. I think that the idea that publishing data can shape outcomes is debatable. We hope that data can inform public debate, but it’s not clear whether and to what extent it actually shapes outcomes. It all depends, and I guess these things need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. With OONI Probe, all network measurement data is published automatically anyways: whenever someone runs OONI probe around the world, all the data that is collected is also automatically published (unless he/she opts-out). But I guess the difference is when we write a post pointing to specific types of data. One of the reasons why we write these posts is because we want to enable people to interpret the data. Our data can be quite hard to explore and analyse if you are not a data scientist. We wish we had the resources to be able to constantly write posts for every single country based on all data — but practically, that’s not really feasible. And so we prioritise on writing posts for countries where we notice new censorship events, and/or where we have ongoing collaboration with local groups.
Why did you decide to get involved?
I’ve always been interested in examining information controls, and I started thinking about these issues when I was in high school – when the use of the intenet started to become more ubiquitous. I have a background in Political Science and I enjoy examining power structures and how they translate to the digital world. I want to live in a world where our human rights are preserved, a world which is not ruled by a few corporations. I first heard of OONI right when it started in 2011 and I was mind blown by the concept. The idea that some people were creating software that would empower you to collect evidence of information controls seemed like a very powerful thing. And so I was eager to get involved!
Have you ever received any pressures from governments or corporations?
No, I haven’t received any pressure.