Zambia: Internet censorship during the 2016 general elections?
A research study by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT).
Table of contents
Out of a total of 1,303 websites that were tested for censorship in Zambia during and following its 2016 general election period, only 10 of those sites presented signs of DNS, TCP/IP and HTTP interference, while previously blocked news outlets appeared to be accessible throughout the duration of the testing period.
No block pages were detected as part of this study that could confirm cases of censorship. Yet, the findings illustrate that connections to the websites of the World Economic Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), and an online-dating site (pof.com) failed consistently from Zambia’s MTN network across the testing period, while failure rates from control vantage points were below 1%, indicating that these sites might have been blocked.
Pornography and sites supporting LGBT dating also appeared to be inaccessible throughout the testing period, and such blocking can potentially be legally justified under Zambia’s Penal Code and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009. However, it remains unclear why connections to other websites, such as that of Pinterest, may have been tampered with during Zambia’s 2016 general elections.
The network tests run in Zambia aimed at identifying “middle boxes” capable of performing internet censorship, did not reveal the presence of censorship equipment. However, this does not mean that censorship equipment is not present in the country, but just that these particular tests were not able to highlight it’s presence.
Zambia is known for its relative political stability, having avoided conflict and maintained a multi-party democratic presidential system since 1991. As part of its Constitution, Zambia guarantees press freedom and various human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to access information, which are enshrined in its Bill of Rights.
Several cases of censorship however have been reported over the last decades, including the ban of The Post, one of Zambia’s few independent newspapers, leading up to the country’s 1996 and 2016 general elections. Other cases of censorship were reported between 2013 and 2014, when four independent online news outlets - Zambian Watchdog, Zambia Reports, Barotse Post, and Radio Barotse - were blocked for their critical coverage of the ruling party. OONI revealed at the time that Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) filtering tactics were used to block Zambian Watchdog’s website.
In light of Zambia’s 2016 general elections, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), in collaboration with Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), conducted a study to examine whether internet censorship events occurred during the election period. This study was carried out through the collection of network measurements from a local vantage point in Zambia, based on a set of OONI software tests designed to examine whether a set of websites were blocked, and whether systems that could be responsible for internet censorship and surveillance were present in the tested network (MTN Zambia).
The aim of this study is to increase transparency about potential internet controls in Zambia which might have interfered with the democratic process of elections. The following sections of this report provide information about Zambia’s network landscape and internet penetration levels, its legal environment with respect to freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, as well as about cases of censorship and surveillance that have previously been reported in the country. The remainder of the report documents the methodology and key findings of this study.
Zambia is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, bordering with Tanzania, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia. Unlike most of its neighbors, Zambia is known for its political stability.
Following the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1964, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled Zambia for 18 years under a one-party state with the motto “One Zambia, One Nation”. Deadly riots, however, and an attempted coup appear to include some of the factors that led to Zambia’s transition to a multi-party democracy and presidential system in 1991. Zambia has since held a number of general elections within this new framework. This, however, was almost disrupted by another failed coup attempt in 1997, resulting in the death sentence of 103 soldiers. Zambia’s last general elections were held on 11th August 2016 which resulted in a victory for the Patriotic Front (PF), whose candidate Edgar Lungu was elected President for a five-year term.
Zambia was one of the world’s fastest growing economies over the last decade, but the falling copper prices, exports and foreign direct investment have weakened the economy in recent years, while the rate of inflation has increased. Corruption also appears to remain pervasive in the country despite anti-corruption efforts, such as the strengthening of legal and institutional frameworks.
Multiple ethnic minorities live in Zambia, the Bembe people being the largest ethnic group. The majority of the population is Protestant, while smaller percentages of the population are Roman Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Bahá’í. Despite the presence of diverse ethnic and religious groups, civil war has been prevented in the country. Xenophobic violence however has been an issue, recently resulting in the death of Rwandans who were accused of engaging in ritual killings in Lusaka.
Food shortages and HIV/AIDS are some of the main issues that have affected Zambia in recent decades. Around 70% of the population is estimated to live on less than US$1 per day. A national disaster due to droughts was declared in 2005, when the President appealed for food aid. While Zambia consists of a population of around 16 million, more than 1 million people are estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS.
Network landscape and internet penetration
Zambia was one of the first countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to adopt the internet, when satellite and dial-up technology were installed at the University of Zambia in the early 1990s. Today, three operators provide Zambia’s national fiber backbone: Zambia Telecommunications Ltd (Zamtel) and Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation Ltd (ZESCO) - both of which are state-owned - as well as Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC), which is privately-owned.
All internet and mobile service providers in Zambia are privately-owned, with the exception of Zamtel, which is state-owned. Overall, Zambia has 16 different Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and 3 mobile operators: Airtel, MTN and Zamtel.
|Number of Mobile Operators||3||3||3||3||3||3||3|
|Number of PSTN Operators||1||1||1||1||1||1||1|
|Number of Active ISPs||-||-||-||16||16||16||16|
Zamtel has the largest share of internet subscriptions, but the smallest share in the mobile phone market, where Airtel and MTN have the largest shares.
|Network Coverage||2010||2011||2012||2013||2014||2015||2016 Q1|
|Internet Points of Presence (Districts)||-||-||-||99||-||-||-|
|PSTN Area Coverage (%)||90||90||90||90||90||90||90|
|National Network Geographical Coverage|
Internet penetration in Zambia is currently limited to about 21% of the population, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Factbook, and Internet World Stats. The limited amount of internet users in Zambia is due to a number of reasons, including high costs of hardware, software and access to the internet, poor network coverage, erratic and expensive electricity, and high levels of illiteracy and poverty (60% of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line, and 42% are considered to live in extreme poverty). Nonetheless, access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been increasing steadily over the last few years, growing from a penetration rate of 10% in 2010 to about 21% in 2016.
The vast majority of Zambian ICT users access the internet via mobile phones, as 70.5% of the population is estimated to have mobile phone subscriptions, while less than 1% of Zambians access the internet from their homes via fixed line subscriptions. As of 2013, SIM card registration with an original and valid identity card is required for mobile phone subscriptions.
Zambia’s Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) estimates that 35.6% of Zambia’s mobile phone subscribers use the internet in 2016, as illustrated below:
|Fixed Line Subscription||115,423||0.72%|
|Mobile Internet Users||5,715,493||35.60%|
|Fixed Internet Subscription||35,960||0.22%|
Blackberry devices appear to be used the most due to their cheap subscription fees, while the increasing number of mobile internet users and government cybercafe regulations appear to be some of the reasons leading to the decreased popularity of cybercafes in recent years.
Zambia’s ICT sector is regulated by ZICTA, which was established under the 2009 Information and Communications Technologies Act. As part of its mandate, ZICTA manages the registration for the .zm country code top-level domains, according to provisions under the 2009 Electronic Communications and Transaction Act. The Independent Broadcasting Authority is also responsible for regulating some internet content.
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Bill of Rights which is included in Part III of Zambia’s Constitution. According to Article 21 of the Bill of Rights:
(1) A person has the right to freedom of expression which includes –
(a) freedom to hold an opinion;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity;
(d) academic freedom; and
(e) freedom of scientific and technological research, as prescribed.
Clause 2 of Article 21 of the Bill of Rights specifies the conditions under which freedom of expression is restricted:
(2) Clause (1) does not extend to –
(a) conduct or statements which incite war, genocide, crimes against
humanity or other forms of violence; or
(b) statements which –
(i) vilify or disparage others; or
(ii) incite hatred.
While freedom of expression is guaranteed under Zambia’s Constitution, in practice this right can be limited by broad interpretations of laws that restrict expression in the interest of national security, public order and safety.
Zambia’s Constitution was recently amended to include significant protections for press freedom.
Freedom of the media (electronic, broadcasting, print, and other forms) is guaranteed under Article 23 of the Bill of Rights, though “the State may license broadcasting and electronic media where it is necessary to regulate signals and signal distribution.”
Clause 2 of Article 23 explicitly prohibits the State from exercising control or interfering with the production or circulation of publications, or with the dissemination of information through any media.
Furthermore, clause 4 of Article 23 guarantees the independence of the public media to determine the editorial content of their broadcasts and communications, as well as the right to present divergent views and dissenting opinions.
In practice, however, press freedom can potentially be limited by various statutes. Zambia’s Penal Code, for example, includes clauses that criminalize the defamation of the president and allow the president to ban publications that are considered to be “contrary to the public interest”.
Access to information
Article 22 of the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to access information. Specifically, clause 1 of Article 22 states that individuals have the right to access information held by the State or another person which is lawfully required for the exercise or protection of a right or freedom.
While the process of drafting Zambia’s Access to Information (ATI) Bill started in 2002, the Bill has still not been enacted into law, thus limiting the right to access information from being exercised in practice.
Various non-profit organizations, including IFEX and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, have criticised the delay and have encouraged the Zambian government to create a timeline for enacting the Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law.
The right to privacy is enshrined in Article 19 of Zambia’s Bill of Rights, which extends to the protection of a person’s communications privacy from infringement.
Data protection is included in Part VII (“Protection of Personal Information”) of the 2009 Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, and Article 42 of the Act specifies the principles for the electronic collection of personal information.
While most of these principles include important provisions for data protection, it is noteworthy that principle 9 enables data controllers to “use any personal information to compile profiles for statistical purposes and may freely trade with such profiles and statistical data, as long as the profiles or statistical data cannot be linked to any specific data subject by a third party”. This principle raises concerns, as research has shown that “anonymized datasets” can be de-anonymized by third parties.
Censorship and surveillance
Zambia’s Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009 (Part XI, “Interception of Communication”) includes details about how lawful interception is carried out, generally requiring a court order (Article 66).
Article 65 of the Act establishes the Central Monitoring and Coordination Centre, which manages and aggregates all authorised interceptions of communications, and which is operated by the department responsible for Government communications. According to Article 77, service providers are required to install hardware and software facilities and devices that enable the “real-time” and “full-time” interception of communications upon request by law enforcement agencies. Service providers are also required to provide interfaces for transmitting all intercepted communications directly to the Central Monitoring and Coordination Centre.
Part XIV (“Cyber Inspectors”) of the Act details the appointment and powers of cyber inspectors. According to Article 94, a cyber inspector may “monitor and inspect any website or activity on an information system in the public domain and report any unlawful activity to the appropriate authority”.
Pornography is prohibited under Article 102 of Part XV (“Cyber crime”) of the Act, according to which a fine and/or imprisonment can be imposed on any person that “procures any pornography through a computer system for oneself or for another person”, or “possesses any pornography in a computer system or on a computer data storage medium”.
Previous cases of internet censorship and surveillance
Africa’s first known case of internet censorship occurred in Zambia twenty years ago.
Leading up to the 1996 general elections, the government of Zambia banned edition 401 of The Post, one of Zambia’s three primary newspapers, and ordered its removal from the newspaper’s website. This incidence of censorship reportedly occurred because edition 401 stated that the government was secretly planning to hold a referendum on the constitution without providing the public with much prior notice.
In addition to censoring the online version and distribution of The Post’s 401 edition, the government also threatened to hold the site’s Internet Service Provider (ISP), Zamnet, criminally liable for the content, and three of the edition’s editors were arrested under the Official Secrets Act on charges for receiving and publishing “classified information”.
No other incidents of internet censorship were reported in Zambia for more than a decade.
The first new censorship attempt started in late 2012 when Zambia’s registrar of societies threatened to deregister the Zambian Watchdog, an investigative online media that focuses on corruption and other major crimes, for allegedly failing to pay required fees and submit a postal address. While this attempt was unsuccessful, the news website was blocked during the following year.
Four independent online news outlets - Zambian Watchdog, Zambia Reports, Barotse Post, and Radio Barotse - were reportedly censored for about nine months, from July 2013 until April 2014, for their critical coverage of the ruling party under President Sata.
OONI revealed at the time that Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) filtering tactics were used to block Zambian Watchdog’s website. According to the collected data, “reset” packets were being injected by DPI device to terminate connections to www.zambiawatchdog.com, leading to the site being inaccessible.
Source: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), “Zambia, a country under Deep Packet Inspection”
Initially, only unencrypted connections to Zambian Watchdog’s website were found to be blocked, but further testing also revealed the blocking of encrypted SSL connections to the website.
The Zambian government did not officially claim any responsibility in relation to this censorship, but Vice President Guy Scott reportedly stated that the Zambian Watchdog’s website deserved to be blocked because it was “promoting hate speech” and its reporting was “malicious, vicious and fictitious”.
During this period, several journalists suspected of working for the Zambian Watchdog were arrested on charges that included the “possession of obscene material”. Two years later, one of those journalists was acquitted after a court ruled that evidence used against him had been planted.
In an open letter, news outlet Zambia Reports claimed that access to its website was also blocked completely, and that it had received no prior notification or explanation from the government in regards to why its website was being blocked. Zambia Reports also revealed that it had filed a complaint regarding the blocking of their IP address to ZICTA.
Censorship in Zambia is reportedly enabled through collaboration with Chinese companies, such as Huawei and ZTE, that equip Zambian ISPs with DPI technology that can be used for the purpose of blocking social media and “unfriendly” websites. The Zambian government has allegedly spent about USD 1.8 million on its partnership with Chinese companies, involving the installation of an internet monitoring facility and possibly the development of backdoors within networks.
Zambian authorities might have also acquired sophisticated spyware, known as Remote Control System (RCS), by an Italian surveillance company called Hacking Team. According to one of Hacking Team’s brochures, RCS spyware can remotely monitor and log activity on computers and smartphones, while being undetected by anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-keylogging software. After Hacking Team got hacked last year, leaked emails revealed that the Zambian government intended to acquire spyware for monitoring and intercepting communications. This, though, has not been confirmed to date, and it remains unclear if the Zambian government is indeed using such technologies.
In 2013 Citizen Lab researchers detected the presence of a Blue Coat PacketShaper device in Zambia. Blue Coat Inc. is a California-based company which is known for developing, marketing, and exporting technologies that can be used to monitor internet traffic, block websites, and track users’ online activities and communications.
As part of its study, the Citizen Lab used a combination of network measurement and scanning methods and tools to identify instances of Blue Coat ProxySG and PacketShaper devices around the world. The research findings show the presence of Blue Coat PacketShaper in Zambia, as illustrated below:
Source: Citizen Lab, “Some Devices Wander By Mistake: PLANET BLUE COAT REDUX”
Numerous reports surfaced over the last years accusing the Zambian government of extensive surveillance activities, some of which may have even targeted cabinet officials, such as the foreign minister, and local leaders. Similarly, members of the opposition have accused the Zambian government of eavesdropping on their phone conversations. Last year, two journalists petitioned the High Court of Zambia to inquire into allegations of phone tapping by Airtel - Zambia’s largest mobile service provider - under the previous government.
Zambia’s 2016 general elections and constitutional referendum
Zambia has a reputation for political stability, especially in comparison to its neighbours, being governed by a unitary presidential republic.
The 2011 elections resulted in a victory for the Patriotic Front (PF), whose candidate Michael Sata was elected President for a five-year term. However, following the death of President Sata in October 2014, early presidential elections were held last year to elect a successor to complete the remainder of his term. This resulted in the election of PF candidate Edgar Lungu, who beat Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) by a very narrow margin. The UPND did not accept the credibility of the 2015 election.
On 11th August 2016, Zambia held its general elections to elect the President and National Assembly. Leading up to the elections, violent outbreaks occurred in Lusaka after the government banned The Post, one of Zambia’s few independent newspapers, on 10th June. Due to the violence, the Electoral Commission suspended campaigning activities in Lusaka and Namwala for ten days. During this period, the government also took action against The Post on the ground of unpaid taxes of around USD 6 million. The ban on the newspaper was eventually lifted more than a month later.
This is not the first time that The Post was banned. This previously occurred in 1996, leading up to the country’s general elections.
Members of the UPND, Zambia’s main opposition party, were arrested a few weeks before the 2016 general elections on the grounds that they were trying to start a private militia. The police started off by raiding the UPND Head Office and questioning staff members and volunteers of the party. According to the UPND, this was part of the PF government’s persecution and abuse towards them. The police subsequently raided the house of the UPND’s Vice President, and a total of 28 people were arrested as part of the raid.
Further controversy emerged in the printing of the ballot papers, which had previously been printed in South Africa. This time, the Electoral Commission of Zambia awarded the contract to Al Ghurair Printing & Publishing, a Dubai-based firm, which prepared the ballot papers used for Zambia’s 2016 elections. Opposition members and civil society groups criticised this move on the grounds that the contract with the Dubai firm was significantly more expensive than previous contracts, and that it increased the possibility of electoral fraud. Similar concerns were also raised in regards to the transport and distribution of the ballot papers.
The 2016 elections presented a “large turnout” and were characterized as “calm and peaceful”, while including a tight competition between the PF and the UPND. A total of nine candidates registered to run for the presidency, as illustrated below:
Edgar Lungu of the PF won the 2016 elections and was re-elected for a five-year term, beating the UPND again with a very close margin. The chart below illustrates that the PF and UPND acquired the vast majority of votes within Zambia:
While the PF and UPND each acquired a similar share of the total votes in the presidential elections, the PF won a majority in the National Assembly, winning 80 of the 156 elected seats. In spite of the pre-election violence, the 2016 elections were generally characterized as “peaceful”. However, election observers in Zambia reported that the media biased the vote in favour of the ruling party.
Following the elections, the UPND accused the Electoral Commission of Zambia for participating in fraud due to its significant delay in announcing the results and stated that the vote was rigged. The US-based Carter Center also expressed concern in regards to the delay of the announcement of the results, and stated that the elections were characterized by significant inter-party tensions and polarization.
Protests sprung against the reelection of President Lungu, resulting in the arrest of 133 protesters. About a week after the elections, subscribers on MTN Zambia, Airtel Zambia, and Vodafone’s 4G service expressed complaints regarding an internet shutdown, some attributing this to state sponsored censorship in an attempt to stifle opposing views towards the election outcomes. MTN and Airtel acknowledged the disruptions, but it remains unclear if the outage was ordered by the government or not.
Alongside the elections, a constitutional referendum was also held in Zambia on 11th August 2016. Voters were asked to answer the following question:
“Do you agree to the amendment to the Constitution to enhance the Bill of rights contained in Part III of the Constitution of Zambia and to repeal and replace Article 79 of the Constitution of Zambia?”
The referendum sought to enhance and amend Zambia’s Bill of Rights
- a declaration of individual rights and freedoms, as issued by the national government - by repealing and replacing Article 79, which dictates the process of future amendments. Specifically, the changes to the Bill of Rights would include amendments to the “Civil and Political Rights” section, and the addition of the “Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights” and “Further and Special Rights” sections. For the referendum to pass, a majority ‘yes’ vote was required, along with a turnout of at least 50% eligible voters.
The referendum was criticised in advance by media organizations, who questioned whether the majority of Zambia’s voters understand the Bill of Rights and what they were asked to answer through the referendum. The PF government was also criticised for its delay in releasing the Bill of Rights, preventing voters from reading in advance the contents that they were asked to vote for or against. This was characterized as a ploy to deprive the people of Zambia from the opportunity to make informed decisions in regards to the country’s constitution. Similarly, the decision to combine the 2016 general election with a referendum was characterized as an undemocratic ploy by the PF government to acquire votes.
While the majority vote (71%) of Zambia’s 2016 constitutional referendum was in favour, the turnout was below the 50% threshold, preventing the validation of the result.
Examining internet censorship during Zambia’s 2016 general elections
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), in collaboration with Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), performed a study of internet censorship in Zambia during its 2016 general elections.
The aim of this study was to understand whether and to what extent censorship events occurred during the election period, limiting voters’ rights to access and disseminate information.
The sections below document the methodology and key findings of this study.
The methodology of this study, in an attempt to identify potential censorship events in Zambia during its 2016 election period, included the following:
Creation of a Zambian test list
OONI network measurements
A list of URLs that are relevant and commonly accessed in Zambia was created, and such URLs - along with other URLs that are commonly accessed around the world - were tested for blocking based on OONI’s free software tests. Such tests were run from a local vantage point (the ISP MTN) in Zambia (AS 36962), and they also examined whether systems that are responsible for censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation were present in the tested network. Once network measurement data was collected from these tests, the data was subsequently processed and analyzed based on a set of heuristics for detecting internet censorship and traffic manipulation.
The testing period started on 11th August 2016 - the day of Zambia’s general elections - and concluded on 24th August 2016. During this period, network measurements were collected every day through the use of OONI’s software distribution for Raspberry Pis.
Creation of a Zambian test list
An important part of identifying censorship is determining which websites to examine for blocking.
OONI’s software (called OONI Probe) is designed to examine URLs contained in specific lists (“test lists”) for censorship. By default, OONI Probe examines the “global test list”, which includes a wide range of internationally relevant websites, most of which are in English. These websites fall under 30 categories, ranging from news media, file sharing and culture, to provocative or objectionable categories, like pornography, political criticism, and hate speech.
These categories help ensure that a wide range of different types of websites are tested, and they enable the examination of the impact of censorship events (for example, if the majority of the websites found to be blocked in a country fall under the “human rights” category, that may have a bigger impact than other types of websites being blocked elsewhere). The main reason why objectionable categories (such as “pornography” and “hate speech”) are included for testing is because they are more likely to be blocked due to their nature, enabling the development of heuristics for detecting censorship elsewhere within a country.
In addition to testing the URLs included in the global test list, OONI Probe is also designed to examine a test list which is specifically created for the country that the user is running OONI Probe from, if such a list exists. Unlike the global test list, country-specific test lists include websites that are relevant and commonly accessed within specific countries, and such websites are often in local languages. Similarly to the global test list, country-specific test lists include websites that fall under the same set of 30 categories, as explained previously.
All test lists are hosted by the Citizen Lab on GitHub, supporting OONI and other network measurement projects in the creation and maintenance of lists of URLs to test for censorship. Some criteria for adding URLs to test lists include the following:
The URLs cover topics of socio-political interest within the country
The URLs are likely to be blocked because they include sensitive content (i.e. they touch upon sensitive issues or express political criticism)
The URLs have been blocked in the past
Users have faced difficulty connecting to those URLs
The above criteria indicate that such URLs are more likely to be blocked, enabling the development of heuristics for detecting censorship within a country. Furthermore, other criteria for adding URLs are reflected in the 30 categories that URLs can fall under. Such categories, for example, can include file-sharing, human rights, and news media, under which the websites of file-sharing projects, human rights NGOs and media organizations can be added.
As part of the study on whether censorship events occurred during the 2016 election period in Zambia, OONI and CIPIT created a country-specific test list for Zambia, containing URLs to be tested for blocking. The added URLs are specific to the Zambian context, and include a number of websites that express political criticism towards the PF party and report on human rights violations. Overall, 90 different websites, mostly grouped under the “political criticism” and “human rights” categories, are included in the Zambian test list, and were tested for censorship.
A core limitation to the study is the bias in terms of the URLs that were selected for testing. As the testing period covered Zambia’s 2016 general elections, the URL selection criteria included the following:
Websites that were more likely to be blocked, because their content expressed political criticism towards the ruling PF party.
Websites of organizations that were known to have previously been blocked (such as zambiawatchdog.com) and were thus likely to be blocked again.
Websites reporting on human rights restrictions and violations, reflecting criticism towards the ruling PF party.
The above criteria reflect bias in terms of which URLs were selected for testing, as one of the core aims of this study was to examine whether and to what extent websites reflecting criticism towards the ruling party were blocked during the election period, limiting open dialogue and access to information across the country. As a result of this bias, it is important to acknowledge that the findings of this study are only limited to the websites that were tested, and do not provide a complete view of other censorship events that may have taken place during the 2016 election period.
OONI network measurements
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) is a free software project that aims to increase transparency about internet censorship and traffic manipulation around the world. Since 2011, OONI has developed multiple free and open source software tests designed to examine the following:
Blocking of websites.
Detection of systems responsible for censorship and traffic manipulation.
Reachability of circumvention tools (such as Tor, Psiphon, and Lantern) and sensitive domains.
As part of this study, OONI’s distribution for embedded devices (called Lepidopter) was run from a local vantage point in Zambia, including the following software tests:
The web connectivity test was run with the aim of examining whether a set of URLs (included in both the “global test list”, and the recently updated “Zambian test list”) were blocked during the testing period and if so, how.
As the presence of Blue Coat filtering technology had previously been detected by the Citizen Lab in Zambia (see section on “Cases of internet censorship and surveillance”), the HTTP invalid request line and HTTP header field manipulation tests were run for the purpose of examining whether such systems were present in the tested network during the testing period.
The sections below document how each of these tests are designed for the purpose of detecting cases of internet censorship and traffic manipulation.
This test examines whether websites are reachable and if they are not, it attempts to determine whether access to them is blocked through DNS tampering, TCP connection RST/IP blocking or by a transparent HTTP proxy. Specifically, this test is designed to perform the following:
HTTP GET request
By default, this test performs the above (excluding the first step, which is performed only over the network of the user) both over a control server and over the network of the user. If the results from both networks match, then there is no clear sign of network interference; but if the results are different, the websites that the user is testing are likely censored.
Further information is provided below, explaining how each step performed under the web connectivity test works.
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. 18.104.22.168). Internet Service Providers (ISPs), amongst others, run DNS resolvers which map IP addresses to hostnames. 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.
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.
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).
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.
Comparison of results: Identifying censorship
Once the above steps of the web connectivity test are performed 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 network interference.
Below are the conditions under which the following types of blocking are identified:
DNS blocking: If the DNS responses (such as the IP addresses mapped to host names) do not match.
TCP/IP blocking: If a TCP session to connect to websites was not established over the network of the user.
HTTP blocking: If the HTTP request over the user’s network failed, or the HTTP status codes don’t match, or all of the following apply:
The body length of compared websites (over the control server and the network of the user) differs by some percentage
The HTTP headers names do not match
The HTML title tags do not match
It’s important to note, however, that DNS resolvers, such as Google or a local ISP, often provide users with IP addresses that are closest to them geographically. Often this is not done with the intent of network tampering, but merely for the purpose of providing users with localized content or faster access to websites. As a result, some false positives might arise in OONI measurements. Other false positives might occur when tested websites serve different content depending on the country that the user is connecting from, or in the cases when websites return failures even though they are not tampered with.
HTTP invalid request line
This test tries to detect the presence of network components (“middle box”) which could be responsible for censorship and/or traffic manipulation.
Instead of sending a normal HTTP request, this test sends an invalid HTTP request line - containing an invalid HTTP version number, an invalid field count and a huge request method – to an echo service listening on the standard HTTP port. An echo service is a very useful debugging and measurement tool, which simply sends back to the originating source any data it receives. If a middle box is not present in the network between the user and an echo service, then the echo service will send the invalid HTTP request line back to the user, exactly as it received it. In such cases, there is no visible traffic manipulation in the tested network.
If, however, a middle box is present in the tested network, the invalid HTTP request line will be intercepted by the middle box and this may trigger an error and that will subsequently be sent back to OONI’s server. Such errors indicate that software for traffic manipulation is likely placed in the tested network, though it’s not always clear what that software is. In some cases though, censorship and/or surveillance vendors can be identified through the error messages in the received HTTP response. Based on this technique, OONI has previously detected the use of BlueCoat, Squid and Privoxy proxy technologies in networks across multiple countries around the world.
It’s important though to note that a false negative could potentially occur in the hypothetical instance that ISPs are using highly sophisticated censorship and/or surveillance software that is specifically designed to not trigger errors when receiving invalid HTTP request lines like the ones of this test. Furthermore, the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative of traffic manipulation, as they are often used in networks for caching purposes.
HTTP header field manipulation
This test also tries to detect the presence of network components (“middle box”) which could be responsible for censorship and/or traffic manipulation.
HTTP is a protocol which transfers or exchanges data across the internet. It does so by handling a client’s request to connect to a server, and a server’s response to a client’s request. Every time a user connects to a server, the user (client) sends a request through the HTTP protocol to that server. Such requests include “HTTP headers”, which transmit various types of information, including the user’s device operating system and the type of browser that is being used. If Firefox is used on Windows, for example, the “user agent header” in the HTTP request will tell the server that a Firefox browser is being used on a Windows operating system.
This test emulates an HTTP request towards a server, but sends HTTP headers that have variations in capitalization. In other words, this test sends HTTP requests which include valid, but non-canonical HTTP headers. Such requests are sent to a backend control server which sends back any data it receives. If OONI receives the HTTP headers exactly as they were sent, then there is no visible presence of a “middle box” in the network that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance and/or traffic manipulation. If, however, such software is present in the tested network, it will likely normalize the invalid headers that are sent or add extra headers.
Depending on whether the HTTP headers that are sent and received from a backend control server are the same or not, OONI is able to evaluate whether software – which could be responsible for traffic manipulation – is present in the tested network.
False negatives, however, could potentially occur in the hypothetical instance that ISPs are using highly sophisticated software that is specifically designed to not interfere with HTTP headers when it receives them. Furthermore, the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative of traffic manipulation, as they are often used in networks for caching purposes.
Through its data pipeline, OONI processes all network measurements that it collects, including the following types of data:
OONI by default collects the code which corresponds to the country from which the user is running OONI Probe tests from, by automatically searching for it based on the user’s IP address through the MaxMind GeoIP database. The collection of country codes is an important part of OONI’s research, as it enables OONI to map out global network measurements and to identify where network interferences take place.
Autonomous System Number (ASN)
OONI by default collects the Autonomous System Number (ASN) which corresponds to the network that a user is running OONI Probe tests from. The collection of the ASN is useful to OONI’s research because it reveals the specific network provider (such as Vodafone) of a user. Such information can increase transparency in regards to which network providers are implementing censorship or other forms of network interference.
Date and time of measurements
OONI by default collects the time and date of when tests were run. This information helps OONI evaluate when network interferences occur and to compare them across time.
IP addresses and other information
OONI does not deliberately collect or store users’ IP addresses. In fact, OONI takes measures to remove users’ IP addresses from the collected measurements, to protect its users from potential risks.
However, OONI might unintentionally collect users’ IP addresses and other potentially personally-identifiable information, if such information is included in the HTTP headers or other metadata of measurements. This, for example, can occur if the tested websites include tracking technologies or custom content based on a user’s network location.
The types of network measurements that OONI collects depend on the types of tests that are run. Specifications about each OONI test can be viewed through its git repository, and details about what collected network measurements entail can be viewed through OONI Explorer or through OONI’s public list of measurements.
The OONI pipeline processes the above types of data with the aim of deriving meaning from the collected measurements and, specifically, in an attempt to answer the following types of questions:
Which types of OONI tests were run?
In which countries were those tests run?
In which networks were those tests run?
When were tests run?
What types of network interference occurred?
In which countries did network interference occur?
In which networks did network interference occur?
When did network interference occur?
How did network interference occur?
To answer such questions, OONI’s pipeline is designed to process data which is automatically sent to OONI’s measurement collector by default. The initial processing of network measurements enables the following:
Attributing measurements to a specific country.
Attributing measurements to a specific network within a country.
Distinguishing measurements based on the specific tests that were run for their collection.
Distinguishing between “normal” and “anomalous” measurements (the latter indicating that a form of network tampering is likely present).
Identifying the type of network interference based on a set of heuristics for DNS tampering, TCP/IP blocking, and HTTP blocking.
Identifying block pages based on a set of heuristics for HTTP blocking.
Identifying the presence of “middle boxes” (such as Blue Coat) within tested networks.
However, false positives and false negatives emerge within the processed data due to a number of reasons. As explained previously (section on “OONI network measurements”), DNS resolvers (operated by Google or a local ISP) often provide users with IP addresses that are closest to them geographically. While this may appear to be a case of DNS tampering, it is actually done with the intention of providing users with faster access to websites. Similarly, false positives may emerge when tested websites serve different content depending on the country that the user is connecting from, or in the cases when websites return failures even though they are not tampered with.
Furthermore, measurements indicating HTTP or TCP/IP blocking might actually be due to temporary HTTP or TCP/IP failures, and may not conclusively be a sign of network interference. It is therefore important to test the same sets of websites across time and to cross-correlate data, prior to reaching a conclusion on whether websites are in fact being blocked.
Since block pages differ from country to country and sometimes even from network to network, it is quite challenging to accurately identify them. OONI uses a series of heuristics to try to guess if the page in question differs from the expected control, but these heuristics can often result in false positives. For this reason OONI only says that there is a confirmed instance of blocking when we have manually added a known blocking page to the list of blockpages we support.
However, this means that when a block page is not presented by the censor we are not able to confirm with absolute certainty that blocking is occurring. For the purpose of this study we have extended our methodology to also take into account unusual failures that could be triggered by the censor. In particular, we have looked at sites that appear to fail consistently (that is in the same way) and constantly over the testing period, therefore most likely not due to transient networking errors.
OONI’s methodology for detecting the presence of “middle boxes” - systems that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation - can also present false negatives, if ISPs are using highly sophisticated software that is specifically designed to not interfere with HTTP headers when it receives them, or to not trigger error messages when receiving invalid HTTP request lines. It remains unclear though if such software is being used. Moreover, it’s important to note that the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative of censorship or traffic manipulation, as such systems are often used in networks for caching purposes.
Upon collection of more network measurements, OONI continues to develop its data analysis heuristics, based on which it attempts to accurately identify censorship events.
As part of this study, 38,598 network measurements were collected on a daily basis from a local vantage point (MTN) in Zambia, starting on the day of the general elections (11th August 2016) and concluding twelve days later. Such network measurements were collected via OONI’s software distribution for Raspberry Pis, which is designed to examine whether a set of URLs are blocked (and if so, how), and whether systems (“middle boxes”) that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation are used within a tested network.
Upon analysis of the collected data, the findings illustrate that 10 different websites were consistently inaccessible during the testing period based on DNS tampering, TCP/IP blocking, and various forms of HTTP blocking. These findings are summarized in the table below:
|Tested site||DNS||HTTP-diff||HTTP-failure||TCP/IP blocking||CTRL failure rate|
The failure rate column in the table above shows the percentage of failed requests to the sites in question from OONI’s control vantage point from 2016-07-01 to 2016-09-01. Since no block pages were found in testing the accessibility of sites in Zambia, OONI extended its methodology to take into account the failure rate of sites during the testing period compared to the overall failure rate from control vantage points. In short, OONI considers a website to be blocked if connections to it consistently fail across the testing period and if it exhibits a low overall failure rate from control vantage points.
Based on this methodology, sites with low failure rates (from control vantage points) - such as drugs-forum.com, cidh.org, and pof.com - are more likely to have been blocked during the testing period than other sites, such as proxyweb.net, which present higher failure rates.
The inaccessibility of gayromeo.com, an online dating website for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) communities around the world, might potentially be attributed to the prohibition of same-sex activity in Zambia. Sections 155 through 157 of Zambia’s Penal Code prohibit homosexual activity and impose a penalty of up to fourteen years of imprisonment. Similarly, both online-dating.org and pof.com may have been blocked for supporting homosexual dating, though online-dating.org also presents a high level of global failures.
Pornography is prohibited in Zambia under Article 102 of Part XV (“Cyber crime”) of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009, which might explain why pornhub.com was found to be inaccessible throughout the testing period. It’s worth pointing out, however, that other pornographic websites were found accessible during the same testing period.
The inaccessibility of other websites appears to be less justifiable. The World Economic Forum’s website, for example, was found to be consistently inaccessible based on DNS tampering and HTTP failures, but the motivation or legal justification behind this remains unclear. Quite similarly, it also remains unclear why the website of the Organization of American States (OAS), which is responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights in America, was found to be inaccessible in Zambia during the 2016 election period. While the website of the World Economic Forum also presented a failure rate of about 7% (indicating that it might not actually have been blocked by Zambian ISPs), the website of the OAS presented a failure rate of less than 1%, indicating that it might have been blocked.
Other websites that raise questions include the website of the World Zionist Organization, which aims at establishing a legally assured home in Palestine for the Jewish people. Interestingly enough, this website presented 0% failure rates from control vantage points, but connections to it failed consistently throughout the testing period. It’s unclear though if this is due to TCP/IP blocking implemented by Zambia’s MTN, or if the website itself rejected connections coming from Zambia. Photo-sharing platform Pinterest also appeared to be inaccessible, presenting HTTP failures consistently across the testing period, but the website’s failure rates (around 7%) indicate that this might not actually be a case of censorship.
Multiple other websites, beyond the ones included in the above table, also presented signs of network interference. However, upon examining these websites across the testing period, connections to them appeared to be successful in most cases, indicating that many of the cases of network interference were likely false positives due to transient failures.
On a positive note, the websites of Zambia’s opposition members and the news outlets (such as zambiawatchdog.com/) that were previously censored between 2013 and 2014 were not found to be blocked during this testing period. Out of a total of 1,303 websites that were tested for censorship in Zambia, only 10 of those websites presented signs of network interference.
The above cases, as detected through the use of OONI’s software, indicate the presence of censorship equipment within the tested network. However, OONI’s HTTP invalid request line and HTTP header field manipulation tests did not detect the fingerprints of such equipment, preventing the identification of the specific types of equipment being used.
Acknowledgement of limitations
The findings of this study present various limitations, and do not necessarily reflect a comprehensive view of internet censorship in Zambia during the 2016 general election period. The first limitation is associated with the testing period, which started on the day of the general elections (11th August 2016) and concluded only twelve days later, without covering the pre-election period when other censorship events might have occurred. This limitation is associated with safety concerns and challenges in regards to probe deployment.
Another limitation to this study is the amount and type of URLs that were tested for censorship. As mentioned in the methodology section of this report (“Creating a Zambian test list”), the criteria for selecting URLs that are relevant to Zambia were biased. This URL selection bias was influenced by the core objective of this study, which sought to examine whether websites reflecting criticism towards the ruling party were blocked. Furthermore, while a total of 1,303 different URLs were tested for censorship as part of this study, not all the URLs on the internet were tested, indicating the possibility that other websites not included in test lists might have been blocked.
Furthermore, this study was limited to one local network vantage point (MTN Zambia) and therefore does not include measurements from other networks, where more and/or other censorship events might have occurred. This limitation is associated to safety concerns and challenges in terms of engaging volunteers in Zambia to run tests.
Finally, the heuristics used as part of OONI’s methodology present limitations. This is due to the fact that many false positives and false negatives occur within collected data (as explained in the methodology section of this report), limiting OONI’s ability to confirm cases of censorship with confidence in many cases. Moreover, OONI’s heuristics are limited to a sample of censorship equipment fingerprints, limiting the ability to identify other types of equipment that may have been used within tested networks.
This study highlights the possibility of DNS, TCP/IP and HTTP blocking of 10 different websites during Zambia’s 2016 general election period. As no block pages were detected, none of these cases can be confirmed with confidence.
Sites that support LGBT dating and pornography were found to be inaccessible throughout the testing period. Under the provisions of Zambia’s Penal Code and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009, the blocking of such sites can potentially be legally justified.
Pinterest was also found to be inaccessible, as well as the websites of the World Economic Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the World Zionist Organization. However, the motivation and legal justification behind these possible censorship events remains unclear. On a positive note, the websites of Zambia’s opposition members and the news outlets that were previously censored between 2013 and 2014 were not found to be blocked during this testing period.