Week in Review: February 14, 2017

by Priscilla Guo

Domestic VPNs Blocked in ChinaOn January 22, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that it would be “cleaning up” domestic VPN (Virtual Private Network) services, which allow users to get past the country’s Great Firewall. Effectively immediately and until March 31, 2018, the government will require VPN services to obtain permission from the government to continue operating. This enforcement will not affect VPN providers based overseas. In its announcement, the Ministry noted “signs of disordered development that requires urgent regulation and governance”. VPN services allow Internet users in China to access websites that have been blocked or censored. Over 100 of the world’s most popular 1,000 websites are blocked in China, such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Dropbox, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

Ooniprobe Tracks Internet CensorshipThe Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) is launching Ooniprobe, a mobile application that will monitor networks for censorship and test network connectivity. As a part of the Tor Project, Ooniprobe tests over 1,200 websites and monitors networks in more than 90 countries. The application runs three tests – (1) a web connectivity test to see if any websites are blocked and how, (2) an HTTP Invalid Line Request to probe for proxy technologies used to censor, surveil, or manipulate traffic in a network, and (3) a speed test to provide information on network connectivity. "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.

Cameroon Shuts Down Internet Beginning on January 18, Cameroon blocked the Internet in the country’s English-speaking regions. For the past three weeks, 20% of the population has had no access to the internet. A week ago, the Internet Sans Frontieres estimated the shutdown to cost businesses up to $723,000. On the day prior to the internet shutdown, the Cameroon Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications released a statement, warning of criminal penalties if users were to “issue or spread information, including by way of electronic communications or information technology systems, without any evidence”. BBC suspects that the reason why the target of the shutdown in English-speaking areas is because English speakers have been protesting against the discrimination perpetrated by the French-speaking majority. The internet shutdown in Cameroon is following the example of many African nations in the past 12 months, including Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Morocco and Uganda.

FCC Removes Nine ISPs from providing low-income Internet accessOn February 3, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai removed nine Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from a list of participants in a federal program called Lifeline, which subsidizes broadband service for low-income consumers. In the program, registered households are given a $9.25 monthly credit to pay for landline, mobile phone, or broadband services. 13 million Americans that do not have broadband service in their homes are eligible for Lifeline. Currently, about 900 ISPs participate in the federal program. Of the nine ISPs recently removed, Kajeet operates in more than 40 states to provide broadband access to school districts. Chairman Pai’s decision actively reverses the decisions of his predecessor Tom Wheeler. Eight additional ISPs are subject to potential removal from the Lifeline program as well in light of the recent decision.

Alphabet Terminates Titan Internet-Drone ProjectOn January 11, Alphabet confirmed that the Titan Internet-drone project had been discontinued in early 2016. In 2014, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude, solar-powered drones, beating out Facebook. Titan aimed to provide internet access via drones so that more people would connect from remote areas. However, the project faced economic and technical challenges. Titan will be folded into the research of Alphabet’s other ongoing Google X projects, Loon and Wing, both of which use high-altitude balloons and drones for their services.