A new app can test networks around the world for government interference.
If you’re having trouble with your internet connection, one of the first things tech support will ask you to do is to run a speed test. There are dozens of websites and apps that will, at the tap of a button, measure your network speed—but they can’t tell you which sites you can actually access with that bandwidth. Even with a good connection, if you’re in a country that censors the internet, whole swaths of the web might be out of reach.
Now, there’s an app that will test your internet connection not for speed, but for freedom. The program, ooniprobe, is part of a 5-year-old project called the Open Observatory of Network Interference, or OONI. This project is sponsored by Tor, the organization behind the privacy-preserving Tor Browser.
OONI has made censorship-testing software available for years, but it has until now required downloading a desktop software package using a command-line tool—a step most computer users aren’t comfortable taking on. The new app will allow anyone with a smartphone to run a test.
“Mobile is where the next billion will come online, so this app fulfills a pressing need to put censorship detection in the hands of the people,” said Deji Olukotun, the senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, an international digital-rights advocacy group.
I downloaded a beta version of the mobile app to give it a spin. (It will be made available in the iOS and Google Play app stores next week.) For now, the app only includes two of the many tools available on OONI’s desktop software: a web-connectivity test and a probe that checks for hardware that censors or alters traffic on a network.
The connectivity test is straightforward. For each website on a preselected list, the test sends to requests: one from my smartphone and one from a server located elsewhere. If both requests return the same result, the URL passes the test and the program moves on to the next one. But if the pages load differently, it’s a hint that something fishy might be going on. If that happens, OONI will test for several ways that network could censor or block access to a URL.
The list of sites that the probe uses is the product of a collaboration between OONI and CitizenLab, a research group at the University of Toronto focused on technology and human rights. The sites on the list generally provide important services, host controversial content, or are likely to be censored for some other reason, said Arturo Filastò, OONI’s project lead and core developer.
The other test bundled in the app is simple but clever. It involves sending an invalid request to an echo server, a computer designed to send back an identical copy of any data it receives. If the bad request comes back in the same form it was sent, the path between the device and the echo server is likely unobstructed. But if the echo is modified in some way, something on the network might be manipulating the traffic that crosses it.
The tests certainly aren’t foolproof. When I ran the second test on the Wi-Fi network here in The Atlantic’s newsroom, it showed no evident tampering. But the first test found “evidence of censorship” on five sites: Two religious sites, a sports-betting site, the homepage of the DEFCON hacking conference, and a sex-doll site.
When I tried visiting each in a normal browser—sorry, IT department—they loaded without issue. (There are several reasons why the connectivity test might return a false positive, including when websites look different depending on the country they’re accessed from.)
By default, test results from OONI’s desktop software or from the ooniprobe app are uploaded to a website called OONI Explorer, which aggregates the results into a browsable database and an interactive map. According to a page with highlights from OONI’s findings, the project collected more than 10 million measurements from 96 countries between late 2012 and early 2016.
The map paints a stark picture of internet censorship around the globe. It doesn’t show a single confirmed censorship case in the Western hemisphere, but reveals a rash of censorship across Asia and the Middle East. OONI only shows one confirmed case of censorship in Africa—Sudan appears to block a handful of adult sites, according to a 2-year-old scan—but networks in many African countries haven’t yet been tested.
Perhaps surprisingly, the club of countries that censor their internet also includes several in Europe. Greece appears to block a dozen betting sites, while Sweden, Denmark and Italy block several bit-torrent sites. Belgium has assembled a long blacklist of both types of sites. France, on the other hand, only blocks two: the homepages of a pair of Islamic terrorist organizations.
When you first download and install ooniprobe, the app warns that “in some countries around the world, legal and/or extra-legal risks could emerge.” Probing a network could be illegal or considered espionage, the developers write, or a user could get in trouble for requesting data from a site illegal in their country: The probe requests data from porn sites, hate-speech sites, and terrorism-related sites. (OONI says it’s not aware of a user ever facing consequences for running a test in the past.)
Filastò says the forthcoming mobile app will allow more people to contribute to the world’s understanding of internet censorship patterns. Access to that information, he says, is a fundamental human right. He pointed to an example from East Africa: Last year, Ethiopians complained their internet access was being censored in response to a wave of political protests, but there was little evidence to prove it. By running ooniprobe, Ethiopian activists found the government was censoring media, human-rights, LGBTI-related and political websites, among others, in addition to blocking WhatsApp.
OONI and Amnesty International collaborated on a report that laid out “incontrovertible evidence of systematic interference with access to numerous websites,” which was published in December.
“Today, Ethiopia is in a state of emergency,” Filastò said. “Yet, the published findings illustrate that censorship events took place beforehand. This type of information can potentially aid political discussions on an international level.”