Students use the Ooniprobe app

Here in the United States, if the internet isn’t working, or is working slowly, the solution is often as simple as calling tech support. In most cases, they’ll have the user run a speedtest, and there are millions of sites and applications that provide this service. However, there aren’t so many sites that allow users to see who has access to their information, and for people in countries where the internet is censored or restricted, even the fastest internet connection won’t grant them open access to information.


This is one issue the team working on the Open Observatory of Network Interference project hope to address with their new Ooniprobe app, which, as of Feb. 9,  is available in a beta version for free on Google Play and in the App store. The app has three main features, a speed test, a web connectivity test and a test that detects the presence of components that could be responsible for censorship or surveillance.


“Without a tool like Ooniprobe, governments have plausible deniability in terms of censorship events, and actually, people claiming that they can't access a website is not in itself proof of intentional, government-commissioned censorship,” Arturo Filastó the creator of the app said. “Now, anyone around the world can run Ooniprobe and can inspect how their network is working and whether censorship is being implemented. The type of data collected by Ooniprobe cannot really be denied by governments since it provides a clear picture into what is happening in a user's network.”


Filastó believes access information is a fundamental human right, but in the current state of affairs, many countries either censor or severely restrict the internet; with countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India showing thousands of blocked sites - including many messaging sites like WhatsApp and Telegram, according to OONI World Map Explorer.


While countries like the United States have considerably fewer reports of censorship and blocked sites, the country isn’t entirely free of censorship. Even here at Western Michigan University types of censorship are in place, but according to Chief Technology Officer Tom Wolf, there is a fine line between censorship and internet security.


“In my opinion preventing malicious cyber activities that are illegal in nature and/or intended to disrupt normal internet traffic would not be considered a form of censorship. I would view this as cyber security,” Wolf said.


This begs the question of exactly where one should draw the line between security and censorship. Most firewalls, such as Merit’s Palo Alto - the firewall currently in place here at WMU - scan for evidence of malicious activities and don’t otherwise censor content.


Filastó addressed the very fine line between security and censorship, distinguishing that security measures should restrict themselves solely to universally bad content.


“Internet censorship, in any form and of any type of content, is a slippery slope. We see this in countless occasions where it's implementation is passed as an excuse to restrict access to content that is universally ‘bad,’ but then the same system gets used to implement censorship for content whose value is much debatable,” Filastó said.


However, Nathan Tabor, a visiting professor and historian focusing on South Asia, expressed concerns over this slippery slope mentality, pointing out that when someone knows their internet activity is being censored, they’re more likely to change their patterns of consumption in a form of implicit censorship.

“A lot of my work is in Persian, so I often access sites from Iran, another place that has very restricted internet access. The things that I access have to do with history and literature, pretty innocuous subjects, but perhaps my internet history comes up on the radar of some overzealous homeland security official because I’m accessing sites from Iran. With the data mining that happens with my search history, I’d look like a terrorist,” Tabor said. “The sites that you read will fall into some kind of aggravated pattern decided by a security apparatus, regardless whether or not you’re doing anything wrong.”

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