Ensuring a Future for Detecting Internet Disruptions

A Field Survey of the Ecosystem Around Internet Censorship, Disruptions, and Shutdowns
Policy Paper
June 15, 2017

Today, two-thirds of the world’s internet users live in countries where content that challenges political regimes, social conventions, or national security is subject to censorship. Over time, internet censorship has expanded from restricting access to IP addresses and domain names for websites, to blocking applications and persecuting users for their online activities. In addition to an already diverse portfolio of techniques, governments are increasingly engaging in the complete shutdown of the internet or telecommunication services within their borders. Governments now have the ability to apply shutdowns and other restrictions in a more targeted manner, and authorities commonly cut off specific regions in response to local instability, dissent, or insecurity. As more governments place onerous restrictions to prevent the free flow of information, and directly contradict widely accepted international commitments on human rights such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is an even greater need to shine a bright light on these practices. This report offers an overview of the state of censorship measurement research in order to provide recommendations that would make rigorous measurement data more available to interested stakeholders, all in service to the ultimate goal of protecting and promoting internet freedom around the world.

Governments have been be able to engage in censorship and disruption without repercussions because these practices have been opaque to the international community and incongruently documented with incomplete evidence. In the past decade there has been increasing civil society engagement and advocacy in order to curtail interference and impose costs on violations of digital rights. In addition to human rights NGOs, a diverse coalition of stakeholders from different communities have become involved in documenting and advocating around internet freedom, such as academia, the private-sector, media, international organizations, and other governments. This community has been particularly focused on preventing the shutdown of networks and interference with applications or websites. The public face of advocacy belies the broad interests at stake. While private-sector organizations and governments typically do not engage in public advocacy, they have natural interests in the prevention of interference and play an important role that is relevant to the measurement ecosystems.

For these stakeholders, censorship measurement is a means to an end. By developing better tools and providing robust data sets that are accessible, open, and usable, censorship measurement efforts could allow non-technical stakeholders to more easily substantiate claims of internet censorship and empower a range of actors to more effectively challenge abusive practices. The same effort would allow social scientists and economists to produce rigorous cross-disciplinary research on the impact and trends of internet censorship. The potential benefits of increased data can be seen in recent efforts to quantify the financial impact of internet shutdowns, which provided civil society and companies with the opportunity to ground their arguments in economic development terms and to involve new parties such as international finance institutions. Collectively addressing repressive blocking and shutdowns will require a collaborative relationship between the technical community, the private-sector, civil society, international organizations, and other stakeholders.

In order to outline a path forward, it is crucial to start by understanding the current state of the community and its unaddressed needs. Over the course of several months, beginning in October 2016, New America's Open Technology Institute (OTI) conducted a series of in-depth interviews with representatives from within the internet freedom and censorship measurement communities. Interviewees covered a broad cross-section of stakeholders, including tool developers, tool users, online platform creators, researchers, NGO employees, foundation staff, and funders. The sessions were semi-structured, beginning with a foundational set of questions shared across all interviews. The interviews touched on several main themes: awareness of tools, motivations, use of tools, ideal capabilities, the terminology used to discuss this work, existing data sources, potential data sources, and more.

Based on interviews, we have identified core areas where efforts to document shutdowns and censorship have been successful, and where there remain unaddressed needs. Across this report, we seek to:

  • Characterize the themes of efforts to measure and advocate regarding censorious interference with the free flow of information over the internet;
  • Enumerate common challenges posed to the measurement community; and,
  • Document the outstanding needs of existing measurement initiatives, the structural impediments to their success, and the differences that exist among them.

Through the assessment project described above, we developed a series of recommendations that support a more comprehensive and effective censorship measurement community. Documentation and information produced during the interviews on the themes of responses, product of research, and attempts to categorize efforts can be found in the Appendices.