Week in Review: January 16, 2018

by Dan Bateyko

Localization Lab Contributor shares insights into Turkmenistan Internet freedom

Localization Lab, a global community of volunteers translating Internet freedom tools such as TOR and Psiphon, has put out a new series detailing their contributors’ experiences with Internet censorship and surveillance. In their first report, Localization Lab spoke with a contributor from Turkmenistan regarding the use of open source software, the state of Internet infrastructure, and popular social media services.

The interview also details Turkmens’ experience with blocked content and censorship, including the use of circumvention methods:

“As VPNs and proxy tools gain popularity, they are blocked by the government, resulting in a cat and mouse game. There is a constant scramble to find new VPN options and many are marketed on social media sites like VK. Who is behind this regular influx of circumvention tools is uncertain. A related question is who is behind open advertising of certain of these circumvention tools on social media sites like VK considering that promoting digital security and circumvention tools can result in consequences from the state.”

The full article can be read on Localization Lab’s website here.

Psiphon circumvention tool sees wider adoption amid Iran Internet censorship

According to a report from Vice Motherboard, the censorship circumvention tool Psiphon has seen “a tenfold increase for mobile usage” in Iran following political protests and Internet censorship. Irv Simpson from Psiphon gives a tentative estimate of eight to 10 million Iranian users using the app at its peak, an “unprecedented” amount of usage.

Psiphon, developed at Citizen Lab, uses a number of circumvention techniques to allow users to access to blocked websites. In the cat-and-mouse game of Internet circumvention, Psiphon is “good and responsive with getting new software out to replace the versions that get blocked” according to Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with Article 19 and the Oxford Internet Institute quoted in the article.

Access Now, a digital rights organization, provides further details of the current state of Internet interference in Iran as well as other circumvention tools being used by Iranians in a recent blog post.

For more statistics on content filtering in Iran, see this Internet Monitor dashboard.

Google faces criticism for blocking access to Cloud services in Iran

Google has faced criticism from a number of news outlets for blocking Iranians access to Google AppEngine, a policy of adhering to sanctions that prevents Iranians from accessing encryption tools which rely on the service.

In a Wired article titled “Tech companies are complicit in censoring Iran protests,” Firuzeh Mahmoudi and Fereidoon Bashar, directors at United for Iran and ASL19 respectively, sum up the concern:

“...Signal has long been blocked by Iran, and while it includes a feature meant to circumvent censorship, it relies on Google AppEngine, a cloud service that Google has decided to block for Iranian internet users. This restriction persists despite years of pressure and the possibility of exemptions under OFAC General License D-1, the document that spells out how the sanctions apply to technology products and services. While it's not the only cloud service available to Iranians, Google AppEngine could provide Iranians access to circumvention technologies and VPNs that hide their traffic from censors.”

A similar article in Vice Motherboard casts doubt over the nature of Google's compliance with US sanctions and highlights Iranian pushback to the policy. As described in Motherboard, one Change.org petition from a London-based Iranian calls on Google to lift the blocks and has received over 8,000 signatures. Google has not yet put out a statement concerning these criticisms.