PTIM 2021 Day 2 Recap
This year’s Pluggable Transport Implementers Meeting was a huge success! Thank you to all the speakers and everyone who attended. For those of you who missed it or would like a refresher, here is a recap of day two
To begin day 2 of the 2021 PTIM, we held a “User Feedback Panel” in which three circumvention tool users shared their experiences from their respective countries. This panel gave great insight on the common censorship that exists in these regions, as well as how each region is uniquely positioned in terms of the censorship they face.
Amir Rashidi shared his knowledge and experience on the censorship and blocking of Internet that occurs in Iran. He outlined the Iranian governments approach to censorship and its uniqueness. The government provides all Internet needs and services which makes censorship easier as everyone is using local, state-owned services. In some cases, the Iranian government has even provided state owned circumvention tools to their citizens and have passed bills to create ground for a legal VPN that the government will then sell to users directly and it will provide a “layered” internet based on users’ needs.
Next, Atnafu Brhane shared the state of Internet Freedom in Ethiopia. Similar to other regions, the government often blocks the Internet during high crisis times such as civil unrest, protests, elections, and more. In recent years, citizen journalism became a well-known tool for human rights advocacy and the government introduced censorship targeted to online space to shut down this kind of journalism. The government has also blocked social media applications like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Currently, the Northern part of Ethiopia is in an information blackout in which people can not access the internet, receive text messages, etc. In terms of circumvention tools, many people will use a VPN when certain social media sites are blocked such as Psiphon and SuperVPN, but this is only possible when there are limited internet restrictions. Recently, the government is blocking complete internet access, meaning VPNs are not helpful and people are limited in what tools they can use.
Andres Azpurua presented on the state of censorship in Venezuela. He mentioned that similar to Iran, the Venezuelan government has attempted to create solutions to major internet platforms, but they have not been successful. Generally, there are “tactical blocks” in which high traffic, well known social media websites are targeted with very specific timing to block users’ access to things that are happening in real time. This often includes news, which is the most heavily censored category in Venezuela. There has also been permanent censorship of large platforms such as SoundCloud and livestream.com. The government has also been blocking circumvention tools like Tor and Obsf4 bridges. Psiphon and TunnelBear are the main circumvention tools used, although TunnelBear is experiencing blocking in the region.
The next round of sessions was a series of lightning talks. The first presentation explored GreatFire’s Envoy Circumvention Code library. They work on a FreeBrowser that is a Chromium-based browser app for Android, with the goal of including as many working circumvention techniques as possible in a way that the user doesn’t have to configure it or be aware of it. The goal is to have one bundle you can pull in and configure to have working circumvention, this project is still in development. Zaituni Njovu of Zaina Foundation presented the next lightning talk discussing how the Psiphon VPN supported Tanzanians during shutdowns. Internet is arguably one of the most important aspects for a democracy in this day and age. In 2020, the Tanzanian government introduced legislation to enable censorship. The Zaina Foundation began trainings and distributing resources for journalists, women, and activists to prepare for censorship to come. They partnered with Psiphon to share materials and Psiphon created a guide for users in Tanzania. Along with digital security, encryption, and social media safety trainings, they conducted advocacy online to prepare the community for shutdowns and blocking. They raised awareness about VPNs, like Psiphon, to help users understand the tools and how they can be of use. During the 2020 election cycle, they created a “Tell a Friend about Psiphon” campaign to encourage users to become acquainted with VPNs and know how to use it when the time comes.
The next talk titled “How to Make a Blizzard: Recruiting Snowflake Proxies and Rewarding Resource Sharing” was presented by a member of the Calyx Institute. They shared how the pandemic shed light on the educational practices within the community and how widely varied the community is in their knowledge. Calyx used their social media to educate users on how to advocate for those in other regions. Calyx teamed up with Tor to collaborate on educational materials and hosting exit nodes. The Proxy Drive (for Snowflakes) is where the community can learn about a free privacy tool, intro to Tor and Tor browser, promote interactivity, and builds Tor’s proxy network by creating new Snowflake proxies. The main goals are to educate members, strengthen proxy network, and target those familiar with privacy tools who would be interested in supporting Tor, becoming proxies, and spread the word. Calyx will continue to build on these initiatives and there will be more educational programming to come.
The next session titled “Building a Cross-Platform Circumvention Tool” explored a centralized repository of transports. The presenter began the talk with “there’s no such thing as a pluggable transport”. They argue that the community does not focus enough on tools. End users install apps, not transports, meaning the app is what will have an impact. At the same time, building cross-platform tools is much harder than building a transport and developers need help doing so. They emphasized the importance of developing transports from the app developer perspective as transports often lack cross-platform supports. The hope is to create an easy-to-use cross platform VPN API, create a cross-platform sample circumvention app that others can fork and build on, and create a sample cross-platform transport implementation. Their focus currently is with the issues that arise with APIs and solving those to move forward with a cross platform circumvention tool. This sparked a fruitful conversation on the future of pluggable transports and the proposed idea.
To wrap up the second day there was a Turbo Tunnel Q&A and Workshop. This session was designed as a conversation around Turbo Tunnel. The main idea is that circumvention protocols should include an internal session and reliability layer, one that is decoupled from the obfuscated carrier session. There are many benefits to doing so, but that main advantage is design flexibility that enables us to write more adventurous and complexly layered protocols. You can learn more about Turbo Tunnel here.