OONI releases new Web Connectivity test for detecting online censorship

Today the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) is excited to be releasing a brand new test, called Web Connectivity, which is designed to detect three different types of censorship: DNS tampering, TCP/IP blocking and HTTP blocking.

Advantages of running Web Connectivity

This test allows us to see which websites are blocked and how, more accurately than ever before!

Previously we relied on running separate (http_request, dns_consistency and tcp_connect) tests with the aim of identifying various forms of censorship. We then had to correlate measurements across different tests to identify whether and how websites were blocked. This process was not only tedious, but it also led to more false positives.

Now with Web Connectivity we can test for various aspects of censorship all within one test! This not only enables us to identify which content is being blocked, but it also helps us pinpoint the exact reason of blocking. This is particularly useful because it makes the process of analyzing why a website is not reachable easier, faster and more accurate.

The heuristics used by Web Connectivity are also a bit more advanced. Contrary to previous tests, Web Connectivity allows us to clearly distinguish between censorship and accessibility, in the sense that we are able to determine whether a website is actually blocked, or if it is just (temporarily) down. Furthermore, collected measurements are no longer compared over Tor, because the discrimination of exit nodes (by CloudFlare, for example) led to many false positives. We now compare collected measurements over a control server which is less likely to be discriminated.

How Web Connectivity works

This test examines whether websites are blocked by performing the steps below both over a control server and over the network of the user. The collected results are then compared with the aim of identifying whether and how tested websites are tampered with. If the compared results do not match, then there is a sign of censorship.

1. Resolver identification

The domain name system (DNS) is what is responsible for transforming a host name (e.g. torproject.org) into an IP address (e.g. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), amongst others, run DNS resolvers which map host names to IP addresses. In some circumstances though, ISPs map the requested host names to the wrong IP addresses, which is a form of tampering.

As a first step, the Web Connectivity test attempts to identify which DNS resolver is being used by the user. It does so by performing a DNS query to special domains (such as whoami.akamai.com) which will disclose the IP address of the resolver. This is an important step because it allows us to see if the user’s resolver is one that is unlikely to perform censorship (such as Google DNS), or that of a local ISP (which is more likely to perform censorship).

2. DNS lookup

Once the Web Connectivity test has identified the DNS resolver of the user, it then attempts to identify which addresses are mapped to the tested host names by the resolver. It does so by performing a DNS lookup, which asks the resolver to disclose which IP addresses are mapped to the tested host names, as well as which other host names are linked to the tested host names under DNS queries.

If the DNS responses (such as the IP addresses mapped to host names) do not match when comparing those collected over the network of the user and over a control server, then there is a clear sign of DNS blocking.

3. TCP connect

The Web Connectivity test will then try to connect to the tested websites by attempting to establish a TCP session on port 80 (or port 443 for URLs that begin with HTTPS) for the list of IP addresses that were identified in the previous step (DNS lookup).

If a TCP session to connect to websites was not established over the network of the user, then those websites are probably blocked.

4. HTTP GET request

As the Web Connectivity test connects to tested websites (through the previous step), it sends requests through the HTTP protocol to the servers which are hosting those websites. A server normally responds to an HTTP GET request with the content of the webpage that is requested.

However, the requested websites are most likely blocked if the HTTP request over the user’s network failed, or the HTTP status codes don’t match, or all of the following apply:

How to run Web Connectivity

If you’ve ever run OONI tests before, then you’re probably familiar with oonideckgen: OONI’s software suite which includes multiple tests. Now Web Connectivity has been added to oonideckgen, replacing the previous http_request and dns_consistency tests (which are included in Web Connectivity anyway).

You can run Web Connectivity by either running oonideckgen or by simply running the following command with a file containing a list of URLs to test (this can either be 1 URL per line or a CSV from the citizenlab test-lists repository):

ooniprobe blocking/web_connectivity -f ~/.ooni/resources/citizenlab-test-lists/global.csv

or by testing your URL of choice:

ooniprobe blocking/web_connectivity --url http://torproject.org/

Learn more about how to run OONI tests (and their associated risks) here.

Happy testing!