New app helps people track internet censorship

Social media throttled during Turkey coup attempt
Social media throttled during Turkey coup attempt

A new tool wants to make it easy to track internet outages and help people learn how to circumvent them.

The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), which monitors networks for censorship and surveillance, is launching Ooniprobe, a mobile app to test network connectivity and let you know when a website is censored in your area.

The app tests over 1,200 websites, including Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and WhatsApp. You can decide how long to run the test, but the default is 90 seconds and would test between 10 and 20 websites depending on bandwidth. Links to blocked websites are listed in red, while available sites are green.

Service providers, sometimes controlled by the government, don't always shutdown the internet entirely -- for instance, Facebook.com might be inaccessible while CNN.com still works.

"Not only we will be able to gather more data and more evidence, but we will be able to engage and bring the issue of censorship to the attention of more people," Arturo Filastò, chief developer for the Ooniprobe app, told CNNTech.

ooniprobe app

To test connectivity, Ooniprobe mimics what a browser does when you connect to a website. It tries to establish a connection to a site's IP address and download the webpage. OONI compares the activity to the same test on an uncensored network. If it doesn't match, the site is likely being censored.

Created in 2012 under the Tor Project, OONI monitors networks in more than 90 countries through its desktop and hardware trackers, which are available to anyone. It publishes censorship data on its site. The organization has confirmed censorship cases in a number of countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ethiopia and Sudan.

By introducing a mobile app, OONI can reach more people potentially affected by internet outages, especially in emerging markets where smartphones are more common than computers.

Related: This African country is taking an unprecedented step in internet censorship

In just the last week, at least two countries have experienced outages. Iraq shut down the internet while students took exams to prevent cheating, and in Cameroon, protests and unrest have led to ongoing outages in the country's English-speaking regions.

Ooniprobe tests web connectivity to not only figure out whether sites are blocked, but how they are being censored. For instance, an internet service provider can initiate a DNS-based block, so when you try to connect to a specific website, the page will say the domain is unknown or blocked. Ooniprobe can also check whether IP addresses are blocked, and looks for "middleboxes" or network devices that manipulate web traffic.

If the app detects a site is censored, it will list ways of getting around it. For instance, Ooniprobe might tell you to visit "HTTPS" versions of sites to circumvent "HTTP" blocking, or to download the Tor browser or the Orbot Android app. (Ooniprobe is used to find specific instances of censorship -- if the entire internet was blacked out, you would know.)

Ooniprobe is rolling out this week for iOS and Android.

Filastò says Ooniprobe can help people see how censorship and surveillance impact them.

"They can better understand that this is something that isn't so abstract and so distant from them, but it's something they can actually understand how it's working," Filastò said. "And maybe be less scared about it."

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