Year in Review: OONI in 2020
In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone.
Yet, several exciting things happened in the censorship measurement world. In this post, we share some OONI highlights from 2020, as well as some upcoming OONI projects for 2021!
New OONI Probe Desktop App for Windows and macOS
We launched an OONI Probe desktop app for macOS and Windows!
With our new desktop app, you can easily install OONI Probe and measure network performance and various forms of internet censorship with the click of a button.
This is a major milestone because this is the first time that OONI Probe is officially supported on Windows.
Windows is not only the most widely used desktop operating system in the world, but it is also commonly used by human rights defenders around the world. Supporting OONI Probe on Windows has therefore been a popular community request over the last years, and we are thrilled that this has now been achieved!
With the new OONI Probe desktop app, you can run all of the same tests included in the OONI Probe mobile app. As soon as you run tests, you will immediately have access to the results – and relevant network measurement data that can potentially serve as evidence of internet censorship – in your app.
Thanks to the Localization Lab community, the OONI Probe desktop app has been translated to the following 17 languages: Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Catalan, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Thai, Turkish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Romanian, Slovak, Albanian, Icelandic, and Greek. The app has also been translated to Arabic and Farsi, but those translations will be shipped once we’ve added RTL support.
During 2020, we also revamped the design of the OONI Probe mobile app dashboard.
As part of our ongoing efforts to ensure feature parity and a seamless experience between the OONI Probe mobile and desktop apps, we aim to ship a new OONI Probe desktop release in early 2021 with the same new dashboard design as OONI Probe mobile.
Warm thanks to the Localization Lab community for having translated the OONI Probe mobile app to the following 20 languages: Arabic, Farsi, Chinese (simplified), Chinese (traditional), Russian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Hindi, Thai, Indonesian, Turkish, Italian, Greek, Catalan, Icelandic, German, Slovak, Romanian, and Albanian.
New OONI Probe measurement engine
The OONI Probe apps now rely entirely on our new golang OONI Probe measurement engine!
Previously, the OONI Probe mobile app was powered by the C++ Measurement Kit library. Now, both the OONI Probe mobile and desktop apps are powered entirely by our new Go engine (and we re-wrote all of the OONI Probe tests in Go).
This is an important milestone because it means that we can write (and integrate) new network measurement tests faster and with greater confidence in code quality, enhancing our ability to more rapidly respond to emergent censorship events around the world.
Our new Go engine is also easier for us to maintain (since it enables us to share more code between the engine and the mobile apps), it’s easier for community members to review and contribute to our codebase (and they have already contributed many new tests!), improving the overall robustness and sustainability of our apps and experiments.
OONI Run usability study
OONI Run is a platform that you can use to generate mobile deep links and widget code to coordinate OONI Probe testing. This is especially used by community members worldwide to coordinate the testing of specific websites during political events (such as elections and protests), when censorship events tend to emerge.
To enable community members to more effectively use OONI Run, we researched its limitations and collected structured community feedback through a usability study, which involved a survey and in-depth interviews.
We documented all of the OONI Run usability study findings in a report, and plan to release an improved version of OONI Run in 2021!
New circumvention tool tests
When censorship events emerge, circumvention tools often get blocked in many countries (likely as part of attempts to limit censorship circumvention).
We therefore developed and released new circumvention tool tests to enable the OONI community to check the reachability of specific circumvention tools: Tor and Psiphon. We chose these tools because they’re open source, commonly used by human rights defenders in censored environments, and we were able to collaborate directly with the developers of these tools. We had also previously developed Tor and Psiphon tests, and so these new tests build and expand upon our previous methodologies.
Tor test. Checks whether Tor works by measuring the reachability of a set of services (Tor directory authorities, OR port, OR port of directory authorities, and obfs4) and by evaluating whether they can be used in the tested network.
As soon as you run these tests, you will immediately have access to the results in your OONI Probe app (along with the relevant network measurement data), and (unless if you have opted-out) these test results will be openly published in real-time. You can therefore refer to OONI data to track whether Tor and Psiphon work around the world.
Censorship measurement is like a cat and mouse game.
As internet censorship becomes more sophisticated, the need to improve and expand upon our censorship measurement capabilities increases. We therefore work continuously on improving our censorship measurement methodologies, and the types of tests that we prioritize on developing are informed by emerging censorship trends and community needs.
Throughout 2020, we developed the following new experiments:
DNS over TLS (DoT) experiment (included in DNS check)
DNS over HTTPS (DoH) experiment (included in DNS check)
URL getter (research tool)
We are grateful to community members who volunteered to run these experiments in censored environments, enabling us to check whether these tests work as expected and to improve upon them.
We are also thrilled that community members contributed many new network measurement tests for OONI Probe! Now that the OONI Probe apps are powered by our new Go engine, integrating new tests has become much easier (in comparison to the C++ Measurement Kit library that OONI Probe previously relied on).
New tests contributed by community members include:
We are extremely grateful for these contributions, and we aim to ship these new experiments as part of the OONI Probe apps in 2021!
Smart URL list system
Website blocking remains an ongoing - and increasingly worsening - problem, often affecting marginalized communities the most.
To improve the monitoring of website censorship around the world, we aim to create a smart URL list system which will help ensure “smarter” testing of websites. More specifically, we will prioritize the testing of websites that are of public interest, whose blocking would have a greater impact on human rights, and which are frequently blocked (such as social media services). To help ensure the safety of the tested URLs, we will continue to run them through the usual Citizen Lab URL review process on GitHub.
“Smarter” URL testing will enable us – and the broader internet freedom community – to more effectively monitor, analyze, and respond to cases of website censorship around the world.
Throughout 2020, we worked on building OONI’s smart URL list system. We started off by creating a policy for URL prioritization. The goal of this policy is to determine the criteria based on which the OONI Probe testing of certain types of URLs will be prioritized over others. Through URL prioritization, we aim to optimize the value of collected measurements, ensure regular testing of the same URLs for consistency, ensure that the tested URLs are relevant to OONI Probe users, and to improve the monitoring of website censorship globally.
We added backend support for URL prioritization based on the Citizen Lab test list categories, as well as for the testing of specific URLs (included in the Citizen Lab test lists). To help increase testing coverage, we added support to the OONI Probe mobile app for configuring push notifications to solicit testing, and so that OONI Probe mobile app users can receive push notifications and run experiments. This will be particularly useful during emergent censorship events when fast coordination of targeted URL testing is crucial.
To ensure that the measurements are more actionable, we developed data analysis capabilities aimed at examining results from a website-centric perspective. To present measurements, we created an initial version of a frontend to present results on OONI Explorer in a website-centric way, and we made progress on creating relevant user accounts.
We have completed most work towards building a smart URL list system and we aim to release it in 2021!
Real-time analysis and publication of global measurements
Starting from November 2019, we are analyzing and openly publishing OONI measurements collected from around the world within seconds!
Our new fastpath pipeline made the real-time analysis and publication of global OONI measurements possible. Throughout 2020, we made significant progress on further advancing our data analysis capabilities and improving our server infrastructure.
We replaced the batch OONI data processing pipeline entirely with our new fastpath pipeline, we built a new OONI PostgreSQL metaDB (powered by the latest version of PostgreSQL 11), we refactored the OONI API codebase to use the fastpath pipeline, we implemented a fastpath pipeline-based API to support OONI Explorer, and we improved our infrastructure by migrating to new servers and including better monitoring and alerting.
All of our backend work not only ensured the robustness of real-time analysis and publication of OONI measurements, but it also significantly boosted the performance of OONI Explorer: the web interface that human rights defenders rely on to search through OONI measurements and track censorship events worldwide.
Throughout the summer of 2020, we had the opportunity to host a great Google Summer of Code (GSoC) student (Krona Emmanuel) from Pakistan, who worked on making improvements related to social media sharing on OONI Explorer. We are very grateful for the great work Krona accomplished throughout his GSoC internship with OONI!
In collaboration with community members, we published the following 11 research reports documenting internet censorship events around the world:
We also had the opportunity to serve as the host organization for OTF Information Controls Fellow, Chinmayi SK, who researched internet censorship in Manipur, India (through the use of OONI Probe and OONI data) and its impact on womxn in the region. We published Chinmayi’s research report, “Those Unspoken Thoughts: A study of censorship and media freedom in Manipur, India”, on our website.
Internet Measurement Village 2020
Between 10th June 2020 to 3rd July 2020, we organized and hosted the Internet Measurement Village (IMV) 2020, an online community event aimed at sharing skills, knowledge, and resources on internet measurement in defense of a free and open internet.
As part of the Internet Measurement Village (IMV), we live-streamed a total of 18 presentations: one presentation almost every day over four weeks.
The presentations featured:
To encourage participation during the IMV, we hosted a live chat on several platforms (YouTube chat, Slack, IRC) and, on average, each presenter received around 10 quality questions from the viewers which were addressed as part of the stream Q/A.
As all the live-streamed sessions of the IMV 2020 will continue to live on the OONI YouTube channel, we hope that these recordings will serve as a valuable resource for the internet freedom community.
Internet Shutdown Measurement Training for Advocates
Between 12th October 2020 to 20th November 2020, we served as the lead partner on Internews’ Internet Shutdown Measurement training program for human rights defenders in Sub-Saharan Africa.
During this 6-week training program, we had the opportunity to work with inspiring human rights defenders from across Africa, learn from them, and engage them with censorship measurement methodologies. Our goal was to train human rights defenders to use measurement tools and datasets as part of their research and advocacy efforts.
More specifically, we created video webinars and led the trainings for the following 2 modules:
Introduction to Network Measurement
Detecting Blocking of Websites and Applications (OONI)
We also helped facilitate the following modules:
Detecting Internet Blackouts (IODA)
Measuring Internet Performance (M-Lab)
Contextualizing Your Data: Using Local Insight and Qualitative Research
Using Measurements in Advocacy (Access Now)
Throughout the training program, we provided mentorship, created and reviewed homework assignments, and supported participants with the development of their research and advocacy projects.
Since 2016, we have had the opportunity to form partnerships with 36 organizations from around the world on the study of internet censorship.
We published an OONI Partners page on our website to feature these organizations, highlight their important work, and share the research projects we have collaborated on.
Throughout 2020, we formed several new partnerships, and we continued to support our partners primarily through the coordination of censorship measurement efforts, reviewing and updating test lists, and by providing OONI data analysis support.
OONI workshops and presentations
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, most conferences were hosted online this year (or cancelled). Online events though provided a great opportunity to meet and form collaborations with people who we may have not otherwise met in person (because they previously did not have the opportunity to travel to attend such events).
Throughout 2020, we presented OONI at the following conferences and events:
Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2020. We hosted an OONI e-booth to engage policy researchers and advocates with OONI’s censorship measurement tools and dataset, address questions, and receive community feedback (through live consultations). We briefly presented OONI during the IGF Village virtual tours.
Internet Shutdown Measurement Training for Advocates in Sub-Saharan Africa. We presented OONI as part of the module on “Detecting Blocking of Websites and Applications”, and we also facilitated the module on “Introduction to Network Measurement”.
Arusha Women School of Internet Governance (AruWSIG) 2020. We facilitated an OONI workshop (“Measuring internet censorship with OONI Probe”) at the Arusha Women School of Internet Governance (AruWSIG) – an annual event in Tanzania for women human rights defenders and researchers.
Tor PrivChat. We participated in the Tor Project’s PrivChat Chapter #2 panel on “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Censorship Circumvention”, where we discussed OONI for censorship measurement and the challenges around censorship circumvention.
NetGain Partnership. We participated in the NetGain Partnership webinar titled “Surging Demand and the Global Internet Infrastructure”, where we presented OONI’s work and discussed how increased internet use during the COVID-19 pandemic was correlated with decreased network performance.
RightsCon Online 2020. Along with CAIDA researchers, we facilitated the workshop “Investigating internet shutdowns with open data” with the goal of introducing human rights defenders to OONI’s measurement tools and dataset. We also served on the RightsCon Online Program Committee, which involved reviewing session proposals and providing advice for the “Network Connectivity and Internet Shutdowns” track.
We also discussed OONI’s censorship measurement tools as part of the following podcasts:
On 15th December 2020, we attended Internews’ workshop, “Building capacity for internet shutdown advocacy: Community needs assessment”, where we facilitated the discussion on community needs around censorship measurement data. This workshop builds upon Internews’ study which found that the vast majority of advocates reported that (out of several network measurement tools) they are most familiar with (and have experience using) OONI Probe. The community feedback collected through this workshop will help inform the development and improvement of our work.
In 2020, the OONI community continued to contribute many measurements from most countries and territories around the world. They also made use of OONI data in many interesting ways!
Some highlights of community use of OONI data in 2020 include:
MIT Policy Hackathon 2020. The theme of the MIT Policy Hackathon 2020 was “Data Collection for Promoting a Free and Safe Global Internet”, where MIT students used OONI data to explore a variety of different questions.
Research paper on measuring the global deployment of network censorship filters. Censored Planet and the Citizen Lab collaborated on a research paper, titled “Measuring the Deployment of Network Censorship Filters at Global Scale”, which makes use of OONI data (to gather blockpages from filter deployments around the world).
Research on surveillance and internet censorship in Myanmar. We had the opportunity to collaborate with Phyu Phyu Kyaw, an OTF Information Controls Fellow, who investigated surveillance and internet censorship in Myanmar through the use of OONI Probe and OONI data.
Research on social media and website blocking in Azerbaijan. Through the use of OONI data, Azerbaijan Internet Watch published a report on the blocking of independent news websites, as well as on the blocking of social media services.
Research on digital rights in Venezuela. IPYS Venezuela’s 2019 annual report on digital rights in Venezuela discussed censorship findings that they discovered through the use of OONI Probe and OONI data.
Reports on the blocking of sites hosting COVID-19 related information in Venezuela. Through the use of OONI Probe and OONI data, VEsinFiltro reported new censorship cases in Venezuela involving the blocking of a site hosting COVID-19 related information. They also published a report documenting the blocking of (and the phishing attempts against) the Heroes of Health platform (created by the management of Juan Guiado).
Report on the blocking of Women on Web in Spain. The Magma project (in collaboration with several Spanish hacktivists) published a research report documenting (through the use of OONI data) the blocking of a reproduction rights website (
womenonweb.org) in Spain.
Report on internet censorship in Egypt. Masaar published a report (“Internet Censorship in Time of Social Distancing”) on the blocking of websites in Egypt through the use of OONI Probe and OONI data.
Psiphon Data Engine (PDE). Psiphon integrated OONI measurements into a new platform (called Psiphon Data Engine (PDE)) which displays OONI, M-Lab, and Psiphon metrics through an interactive dashboard. The OONI measurements though have temporarily been disabled because we recently switched to a new PostgreSQL metaDB (powered by PostgreSQL 11).
We are excited to see how community members make use of OONI data in 2021! If you’re interested in working with OONI data and need support, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
We have many exciting projects lined up for 2021!
Some highlights include:
Smart URL list system. We aim to launch our smart URL list system in 2021 to improve the monitoring of website censorship around the world.
Website-centric stats on OONI Explorer. Along with improved website testing (enabled through our smart URL list system), we aim to display website-centric views on OONI Explorer to enable more in-depth analysis of website censorship globally. We will also create user accounts for access to more advanced website analysis metrics.
Improved OONI Probe Tor test. We aim to expand upon the OONI Probe Tor test to also test Meek, bootstrap tor, and potentially test other pluggable transports as well.
New network measurement tests. We aim to ship the new experiments developed in 2020 as part of the OONI Probe apps, and develop new tests!
New Linux packages for OONI Probe. Throughout 2020, we worked on building a Debian package for OONI Probe. In 2021, we will release official Linux packages for OONI Probe! This will serve as a replacement for the legacy version of ooniprobe (which is still run by many Linux users around the world). We also aim to improve the usability of the OONI Probe Command Line Interface (CLI).
Automated OONI Probe testing. In 2020, we worked towards adding support to the OONI Probe mobile app for regular automated testing. In 2021, we aim to support regular automated testing on both the OONI Probe mobile and desktop apps to expand the stable measurement coverage worldwide.
Browser-based censorship measurement tool. To simplify the process of running tests during urgent censorship events, we will experiment with implementing a browser-based network measurement tool. This will complement the OONI Probe apps and serve needs related to rapid response.
New web platform for community contributions to test lists. To enable community contributions to the Citizen Lab’s test lists, we will create a web-based platform that enables community members to easily review and contribute to test lists (without having to use GitHub).
New community resources. We aim to publish user guides for OONI tools, as well as documentation on how to coordinate censorship measurement campaigns, how to contribute new nettests, and how to interpret OONI data.
More research reports, workshops, and training. We will continue to collaborate with community members on investigating censorship events worldwide and documenting them through the publication of research reports. We will also continue to engage communities through OONI workshops and training.
Our above priorities for 2021 have been informed by community feedback collected over the years (as well as in response to the dynamic censorship environment worldwide). If there are additional areas that you think we should prioritize, please don’t hesitate to let us know.
Warm thanks to the global OONI community for supporting our work throughout 2020!