Tor Researchers Create OONI To Monitor Censorship

    May 1, 2012

If you are familiar with Tor, you know it to be the anonymous Web utility and browser that allows people to get around censorship and communicate without being spied on. It was essential for communication during the Arab Spring protest movement and many other like minded movements. It’s also used and endorsed by Anonymous for their operations.

The researchers behind Tor have another great program up their sleeve to help combat Internet censorship directly. It’s called OONI which stands for Open Observatory of Network Interference. It’s a utility that does just as its name sounds. It allows users to look at a network and see what Web sites are blocked and censored by the ISP. Here’s the official description:

OONI is the Open Observatory for Network Interference and its aim is to collect high quality data using open methodologies, using Free and Open Source Software (FL/OSS) to share observations and data about the kind, methods and amount of surveillance and censorship in the world.

This is a human rights observation project for the Internet. OONI seeks to observe levels of surviellance, censorship, and networked discrimination by networked authoritarian power structures.

The end goal of the OONI project is to collect data which shows an accurate representation of network interference on the Filternet we call the internet.

It’s a great tool that’s been needed for a long time. While there are other organizations that detail how free the Web is in various countries, OONI will actually see what kind of content is blocked in these countries. It might even reveal a few surprises regarding countries that claim to be free.

Of course, the next question would be if OONI has already exposed any kind of censorship. Indeed it has and one is pretty close to home. T-Mobile has a filter on their own browser called Web Guard. It’s meant to be a block for adult and other offensive content, because parents understandably don’t want their children to have access to this kind of content. The problem is that the feature is by default turned on for pre-paid accounts and it doesn’t inform users how to opt out of it.

It wouldn’t be a huge problem except that T-Mobile’s Web guard also blocks a pretty large amount of legitimate sites as well. The most humorous being the official Web site of the Tor Project. Other inclusions on the Web Guard block list includes Newgrounds, Cosmopolitan Magazine, a Chinese sports Web site, a 9/11 conspiracy site, a French pop music site and other seemingly unrelated Web sites.

When Tor asked T-Mobile about the blocking, a representative for the company just kept saying they would help him turn off Web Guard, but never provided any details as to why Web site like the were censored. To that end, Tor says that T-Mobile is deciding what pre-paid customers, mostly children under 18, are allowed to see.

The other major censorship regime that OONI has spotted was in Palestine. They claim that the that censorship is taking place in Bethlehem and is politically motivated. Out of all the Web sites that OONI analyzed, only eight were found to be blocked. Those eight Web sites that were blocked were all news sites that were found to report critical news about Palestine’s President, Mahmoud Abbas.