This is a profile of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a Mozilla Data Futures Lab awardee

Internet censorship is one of the most pressing digital rights issues today — and also one of the most daunting. Individual users who face censorship, like the blocking of websites or apps by their government, can feel powerless.

But the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) believes users can make a difference — especially collectively. OONI is a global community empowering internet users around the world that identifies censorship, and also fuels research that can push back against it. OONI is home to the biggest open dataset in existence about internet censorship.

The initiative has a history spanning over a decade, from its origins within the Tor Project to its current independent status. “Our vision has always been about building tools that allow people to independently investigate network interference,” explains Arturo Filastò, OONI project lead and co-founder.

OONI is a Mozilla awardee and a member of the 2023 Data Futures Lab cohort: five projects creating crowdsourced datasets for the public good.

OONI’s tools, like the OONI Probe, can be installed by anyone on computers and smartphones. “The Probe then carries out a series of network experiments that collect and publish open data about internet censorship,” Filastò explains.

The initiative makes this data openly available so others can use it to catalyze investigations or advocacy. OONI currently collaborates with more than 40 digital rights organizations around the world, investigating censorship in dozens of countries.

OONI Probe is made possible by “regional and national experts who curate lists of sites that may be blocked,” Filastò says — websites like political activism forums or social media platforms. The Probe tool checks users’ access to those sites, providing a detailed picture of what content is blocked where in the world.

But OONI doesn’t just focus on blocked websites. The initiative can also determine where instant messaging apps, like Telegram or Signal, are blocked. And it can test to see if Tor or VPNs work in a particular region. “If there is censorship in a country, this helps people determine which tools they could be using to get around the restrictions,” Filastò explains.

How common is internet censorship? “We see a big variety of techniques that are deployed around the world,” Filastò says.

We see a big variety of [censorship] techniques that are deployed around the world.

Arturo Filastò, OONI

The most restrictive countries have centralized systems of censorship, Filastò explains, like China and Iran. In other countries, a range of techniques are used. For example in Europe, “it’s usually up to the individual ISP to determine what particular method to use,” he adds.

Russia is an outlier: “Although there is quite pervasive censorship, it's still mostly — or at least historically was — offloaded to the individual ISPs,” Filastò notes.

These techniques include DNS-based filtering, where an ISP configures their technology to point visitors to a domain in another direction. Filastò says this is one of the most common censorship techniques because it's the easiest to implement — “but oftentimes it’s quite easily circumvented.” Other techniques are IP blocks, which blacklist sites’ IP addresses, and various deep packet capabilities, which are more sophisticated.

The internet freedom community is at the heart of OONI’s work: “People that care about digital rights,” Filastò says. They can include human rights organizations and activists, journalists, technologists, and lawyers (some of whom have won court cases using OONI data).

Some of the most common contributors are people who are directly affected: “They experience censorship themselves, want to expose what is happening in their country, and document restrictions to their freedom of expression,” Filastò says.

To get involved, visit https://ooni.org/.

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