Cloudflare TV

🌐 Radar In Real Life: Access Now

Presented by Jocelyn Woolbright, Zach Rosson
Originally aired on 

Welcome to Cloudflare Impact Week 2022!

Cloudflare's mission is to help build a better Internet. We believe a better Internet can be not only a force for good, but an engine of global sustainability. This week we'll be highlighting an array of initiatives inspired by these optimistic ideals, as well as stories from partners who share them.

In this episode, tune in for a conversation with Zach Rosson, Data Analyst, Access Now.

Tune in all week for more news, announcements, and thought-provoking discussions!

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For more, don't miss the Cloudflare Impact Week Hub

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Transcript (Beta)

Hi, everybody. My name is Jocelyn, and I work on our public policy team and I manage many of our different impact projects that we have here at Cloudflare, and I'm super excited to have Zack on from Access Now, and we're going to be talking a lot about Internet shutdowns and how Access Now is able to be able to track these shutdowns and kind of keep governments accountable.

When you think about Internet shutdown happening in many different areas and really the idea of whenever we partner with organizations like Access Now is to think about how we can use our products for good.

And that's really how we've been thinking about radar, Internet shutdown alerts, also providing access to the radar API because we want to make sure that we provide these types of tools to the organizations that can really use them to be able to document these shutdowns.

So if you don't really know, Internet shutdowns have really been a tool in government's toolboxes when it comes to silencing opposition or cutting off access from the outside world.

So the Keep It On campaign by Access Now is a group that actually defends digital rights by global Internet users.

And from my for my research you've access now has been documenting about 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries for 2021.

So really excited to talk to Zack about what this looks like in practice and what his every day looks like.

So Zack, thanks for joining us.

I'm curious, can you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how you ended up at Access Now?

Yeah, absolutely.

Yeah. Thank you, Jocelyn.

So, yeah. Zac Rosson, Keep It On data analyst at Access now.

And my background is really a lot more kind of traditional science first and foremost.

So I have a bachelor's in physics, a master's in geophysics. So I was on the science research track pretty, pretty heavily.

But I found kind of through that work that I loved working with data.

And alongside of all of that, I was really getting into kind of like local activism and volunteering and, you know, kind of always had a natural affinity and interest and kind of global events and human rights.

And so that kind of just coalesced that this position became available with with access now to do work for their Keep It on campaign.

So I use a lot of those kind of technical data skills and research to kind of bear down on looking at Internet shutdowns, document them and look at look at shutdown data.

So that's kind of how I meandered into Access Now. But I'm really excited to be working for the Keep It on campaign.

Yeah, that's great.

I really like the idea of the science and research part of that and working with data, and I think a lot of it, especially during a shutdown, is being able to like comb through the data and figure out what can be documented, what you can use, and kind of using those text data skills to be able to help in the human rights space.

But can you tell me a little bit more about like who is Access Now?

I know they're one of the largest human rights organizations, but what does that look like, kind of at a high level?

Yeah, absolutely.

So Access Now is a growing international human rights organization, kind of first and foremost that defends and extends the digital rights of people and communities at risk.

So it was actually founded in 2009 in response to the Iranian election, where people came together to protest election fraud and report on human rights abuses.

So Access Now actually began as kind of an emergency response team of technologists trying to help people get back online.

And that's still a lot of the core of what Access Now is about.

So primarily now kind of through a bunch of different initiatives, we partner with local actors to kind of develop a grassroots global approach to bring human rights agenda to bear related to digital technologies and Internet access, and combine a number of different approaches like technical support, a 24 hour technical help line advocacy grant, making our conference Rights Con to ultimately fight for human rights in the digital age.

So kind of a spectrum of things.

Keep it on being one of them.

Yeah, that's great.

So we've actually Cloudflare, we've been partnering with Access Now since the beginning, really the beginning of Project Galileo, and we work with a bunch of folks on the help line to provide our services.

So it's always really interesting to see like on our side how we can work on the Internet shutdown side with Access Now, but also on more of the digital security side, because if you think about it, a lot of those types of initiatives kind of come together.

So it's really interesting to hear all of that.

How many, when you think about like is Access Now, do they have offices in different countries?

What does that look like more on a structural level?

Yeah, for sure.

That's a great question. So I think there's over 120 of us, more or less.

We're spread out around the globe.

I think we have four office presences or so.

And Brussels, Berlin, Tunis, Tunisia, Costa Rica, New York.

So we have kind of established that presences in all those places, but we have a lot of remote staff and partners spread out globally.

So I think maybe 25% or less of our total staff is based kind of in the US.

So yeah, definitely a distributed team.


And most probably with like many different types of skill sets and thinking a little bit about the range of data sets and how you talked about more of your background in science.

Curious, how does Access Now monitor shutdowns?

What is the methodology?

What does that look like in practice?

Yeah, absolutely.

So I think that's where the kind of research component definitely comes in.

We're pulling from such a variety of different sources.

Cloudflare is an excellent source being one of them to get internet traffic and information.

But there are many cases where the information on the ground that we have through local partners is absolutely paramount to figuring out if shutdowns are happening and the scale and scope of them happening.

So we take a pretty kind of holistic approach to identifying shutdowns and documenting them where if we see a local news source or we get a tip from a grassroots partner, or if we get an alert from the measurement community about a disruption and we're kind of using all these different lines of evidence to verify what's happening, the magnitude of it, the kind of scope and scale and the kind of technical implementations related to the shutdown and most importantly, how it's affecting people.

So the impacts it has on people are kind of front and center with how we frame Internet shutdowns.


Like there's I feel like there's two kind of parts of it. There's like the technical aspect of how is it government blocking or slowing communications down?

And then there's like the human rights aspect of it, of like, how is this impacting people on the ground?

How are people organizing?

I'm curious.

There's lots of different types of shutdowns, including like IP blocking, DNS interference, mobile data, shut offs, what are like the many different types of shutdowns and how do you kind of track them individually?

Yeah, absolutely.

So as you pointed out, there's many different types of shutdowns and, you know, they're reflected in our data set globally in a variety of ways based on kind of the regional and country wide context.

Yeah, there's there's complete shutdowns and complete blackouts of any kind of telecommunications infrastructure.

There are mobile Internet shutdowns, which are very common in countries where the majority of the Internet users are on mobile phones.

And so depending on the context, that can be used as kind of a further marginalization tool to only be limiting access to people who are only using the Internet on their phones.

So that's something we track a lot of and we've seen a high prevalence of, especially in India and Africa and different places.

There's also throttling.

So and this is a little bit harder to detect, but the deliberate slowing down of the Internet to such unusable speeds that we consider that still a shut down where if someone wanted to live stream a police abuse happening at a protest, they wouldn't be able to do that just because the upload speeds are just so, so slow that it's just functionally unusable.

So those are a few kinds as well, so for our looking at Internet shutdowns, in addition to those three kinds, if it's a two way communication platform or like a social media platform, and if that's being deliberately blocked, then we consider that a shutdown as well.

So if a government is blocking Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp, then we consider that a shutdown.

We see that often. Hmm.

Yeah. Like the different ranges of shutdowns mean different things whenever people try to organize.

And for what?


Whenever you think about Internet shutdowns, they're largely very public.

So the idea that masses of people aren't able to access or communicate with each other, you know, that is a very public thing, but it's really hard to document and track when these types of shutdowns are happening and how governments implement them.

Do you mind talking a little bit about what you think about that and why it is difficult to be able to track and document these things even though they are very much public?

Yeah, absolutely.

And I think it really depends on the kind of regional context based on how they're occurring.

And sometimes, unfortunately, authorities want to use shutdowns to quell dissent and to stop the free flow of information.

And so, yeah, that often results in the information about the occurrence of shutdowns.

And so when people are in the dark like that, it prevents not only the kind of real time news of what's going on, because it's usually related to an election or protest or coup or something.

But also that understanding about the shutdown itself, because people have trouble communicating out with what's happening.

And we have a lot of circumvention tools and different things that we train people on.

But getting that out to the broader public is really difficult. Increasing technical literacy in a way that makes sense to people, that's localized their experience, that doesn't seem like a device or technology from afar, but is something that is rooted in their experience.

And usability is also extremely important.

But yeah, that's all to say that, you know, keeping people online so they can talk about shutdowns, you know, is definitely a struggle and prevents us from seeing them as easily.

And yeah, that sometimes that's what we're fighting against that authorities are getting their way by, you know, squashing people's ability to communicate.


And I think whenever we think about open communication, especially like during election time, like the most important part of elections is like building trust.

And like for people who experience an Internet shutdown in a specific country, like it's deteriorating the trust between the government democratic elections.

So I can see where it can be really difficult to kind of hold governments accountable in that specific way.

But do you mind talking a little bit about like what is the Keep it on campaign?

When did it specifically start? Yeah, absolutely.

So the Keeping On campaign was created in 2016 at our annual Conference Rights Con to fight against what was seen then as kind of a growing trend of Internet shutdowns.

That's, of course, become way more obvious and flagrant and the numbers keep going up, unfortunately, since that point in 2016.

But it was just created out of an effort to kind of unite and organize the efforts of activists and organizations that were already doing great work and pulling all those groups together across the world to end Internet shutdowns.

And it's a broad global coalition of nearly 300 members across over 100 countries that are all kind of in their own ways, helping advance the fight to stop the use of Internet shutdowns through grassroots advocacy, policymaker engagement, technical support, corporate accountability and legal intervention, among other things.

So have a very broad, diverse coalition that does a lot of great work.

So the Keep It On campaign is about uniting all those efforts. Yeah, I really like the idea of bringing like many different organizations from around the world to have their own expertise and their own ways of like using different data sets to be able to measure shutdowns.

I'm curious if you have a specific example of a shutdown, and I imagine it's really hard to get all of these members together and be like because during a shutdown, there's probably so much it's almost like disaster, like crisis response in a way of like trying to make sure you're documenting everything, but like being able to bring all of those people together.

Like, what does that look like in practice?

And can you give an example of like during a shutdown what this might look like?

Yeah, absolutely.

So yeah, I think that's the power of it is that we have voices in so many places that are providing information that we couldn't otherwise get.

And, you know, if they're there on the ground, if they're working with local partners, that they're kind of connected into what's happening.

They can provide the whole coalition with, you know, the most up to date pertinent information.

So really, yeah, that's just a lot of coordination with, you know, communicating updates across our email list or creating open letters and petitions to advocate against shutdowns, sometimes not just while they're happening, but before they happen.

Ahead of elections, that's something we track closely. We have an election watch that tracks countries that may be at risk of implementing a shutdown around the election based on past history in that country or past history regionally, and kind of coordinating those resources ahead of time with partner organizations, bringing in the measurement community if we need kind of proof, especially in the moment.

That's something that we all kind of pull together and do and based on who's available and also who's, you know, in country, who's not only providing that feedback, but kind of providing evidence to help everyone else advocate and support them, that's generally how we handle it.

Sometimes it's it's definitely sensitive because if we're working with people that are experiencing the shutdown actively, they can be for the related reasons, for the underlying reasons for the shutdown or just in general, under a lot of stress and, you know, dealing with some pretty serious things in their own lives.

So how that's handled and how we how we work with them is also something that we're very concerned with.

And I think that's where the kind of crisis response action comes in and being able trying to be empathetic with what's happening with human rights defenders on the ground.

So it's it's always trying to figure out how you document the shutdown, but also how you talk with people who are experiencing it.

When you talk a little bit about like coordinating research beforehand, like especially in places where you've seen shutdowns happen, especially during elections, how do you prepare people?

Like, do you prepare people who are on the ground for a possible Internet shutdown?

What does that look like beforehand when you try to provide assistance or I imagine it must be you're diligently watching, but do you ever provide any guidance for people who are on the ground?

Yeah, no, great question.

And it really depends.

And I think, yeah, the kind of keep it on team ad access.

Now that's something we're really engaged with and it really just depends.

It depends on how interested, you know, the local groups are and getting our feedback or trainings because we do have kind of trainings ahead of elections for people like election observers or other human rights defenders or activists as to digital safety tips and security tips in the event of a shutdown based on the possible kinds of shutdowns, how they best how they can best prepare themselves.

So yeah, it really it just depends.

We had a lot of coordination ahead of the elections in Kenya this past year with with election observers and a bunch of other groups.

And yeah, sometimes in person.

We want to get back to that.

Of course, a lot more as we're getting on the other side of the pandemic.

But yeah, it had been a lot of virtual stuff over the past couple of years to provide training and kind of get their questions and their specific circumstances.

So definitely we do that in consultation with local groups that can kind of help us filter our information and provide the kind of best support we can.


So thinking about I just thought like thinking about COVID 19 and the Internet shutdowns, did you see a change kind of when a government would have a specific shutdown before COVID?

Have governments tried new types of shutdowns during COVID or kind of post-COVID life?

Have you seen this change in how people document them, how they track them?

I imagine that since so many people have moved online, there must have been kind of a shift in how governments are kind of trying to silence either activists or just trying to shut down Internet in general.

Have you seen this kind of shift in how they do this?

Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, there's been a number of different trends and kind of causes and effects related to the pandemic.

I mean, the biggest effect being with so many people online and relying on it for education and business and health care increasingly so didn't stop governments from imposing the shutdowns, and it just made them all the more painful for people to experience.

And as far as trends that we've seen, yeah, a lot more kind of locally targeted shutdowns, a lot of kind of curfew based shutdowns, like in Iran.

So just kind of increased sophistication with you still see plenty of the nationwide blanket shutdowns like in the Middle East, North Africa during exam season where these huge blackouts.

But then you're also seeing increasingly targeted shutdowns, more frequently tied with conflicts as well as I think probably since 2016.

A lot more social media blocking.

And just again, just trying to really silence dissent based on where they think they can find it, to try to exert some measure of control, to just focus in on the populations.

Sometimes, even if it's a protest happening, they want to just shut down the Internet and that immediate neighborhood.

So we see things like that's happened more and more over the years as they gain the tools to implement these.


Yeah. Thinking about like gaining the tools to be able to do it on a more like community or like smaller city level is actually really scary to think about.

We've, we've chatted a little bit about this before but thinking about like the qualitative and quantitative sources that you have for being able to track and document shutdowns.

Do you mind talking a little bit more about what the process is for reporting that and kind of what that looks like in your day to day?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, yeah, we have a pretty thorough research and vetting and verification process, regardless of whether it's quantitative or qualitative data.

And really us hearing about a shutdown in the immediate advocacy sense, it's not so much which type of information it is qualitative and quantitative that kind of calls us to action and allows us to do kind of our rapid response functions with circumvention and mitigation support and advocacy and things.

But for the more kind of research component, it's just in general based on our level of trust.

So if it's a partner that we've worked with for years that we know has great information, great technical background, or they work with people with excellent technical backgrounds, you know that can be one method, you know, if that's kind of coming from that source, if it's a government order directly, you know, that's a pretty strong piece of evidence, obviously, from the measurement community getting traffic data, especially in areas with a lot of connectivity, seeing clear drop offs in traffic, very artificial, you know, troughs and cutoffs at specific times and kind of different clues can be used as very strong pieces of evidence that, one, we always try to corroborate with our local partners.

But to that always is going to require context as to where it's happening, why it's happening, why the government would order it, and then immediately kind of getting the impacts on people.

So that's that's kind of our process.

And currently we compile all that information in our database at the end of the year.

So. I think you hit on something that I think a lot about when working with organizations under Project Galileo is kind of like the trust building, like building trust in with like civil society organizations and communities on the ground, I think is one of the most important parts of it.

And like as Access now is one of the largest organizations kind of in this space, it's really interesting to see that trust building.

And like I'm always we're always really happy to work with Access Now when it comes to doing that.

So what do you think about the we talked a little bit about before how you might prepare different communities for a shut down during but like what happens after you collect all this data?

You have all these different trackers and you work with many different partners.

What happened?

What do you do with the data? What happens after the shutdown?

Yeah, absolutely.

Now, that's an excellent question. And if we're compiling all this information, yeah, it has to be used for something.

One of our biggest deliverables is our annual report, which we're currently pulling together for 2022.

That provides just a global overview of all the elements of where, when and why shutdowns happened.

To try to have a full global accounting of this is all that happened.

You know, this is how people were affected in this myriad of ways, and this is the scale of the problem.

This is how it's changing over the years.

There are some current wins in the space kind of happening at the multilateral level with the UN, you know, kind of different initiatives, EU AEW, that we're seeing positive things happening.

To just provide a global context and kind of a full.

Yeah, just accounting for all the shutdowns happening so we can kind of provide just a lay of the land so people understand the scope of the problem for kind of awareness building, but also just to spur more advocacy and press, to just call attention to the issue and just shine a light on what's happening, how it's affecting people and, you know, how this problem is getting worse.

So that's one of our big deliverables.

But so through the use of data and through the use of just tracking shutdowns in general, yeah, we always hope to hold power to account, kind of help like local legal groups and regional legal groups.

We've done a lot with that, you know, provide evidence for amicus briefs.

Sometimes the disbursement of humanitarian aid and understanding which countries are under a lot of stress, just any number of things to use the information, use kind of the evidence of these things happening and the harms that they're causing people.


To hold truth to power, basically. Yeah.

And I think one of the really great things that Access now does really well is telling the human stories of Internet shutdowns, which I think is really, really important.

But so we have 3 minutes. I just want to ask you really quickly, like how do you use Cloudflare radar alerts?

What do you plan to use with the API? What are you excited about with the alerts?

How do you use it?

Yeah, absolutely.


I'll just say it's not just because on Cloudflare TV, it's. It's an excellent resource.

It really is.

We're very appreciative of it. We couldn't do, you know, a lot of our work without resources like this.

So, yeah, the radar, the outage center, it definitely helps us understand and get a read on shutdowns and more and more often now kind of Cloudflare or alerts or sometimes some of our initial notifications about shutdowns.

So whether we're hearing it from people experiencing them or regional partners that kind of are more locked in with what's happening.

Yeah, sometimes it just comes from the measurement community, like, Hey, we're seeing this drop off and, you know, providing your own context and alerts and call us into action and allow us to start immediately building that evidence and advocating against it.

So yeah, the alerts are helpful.

The outage center to look at that data to help kind of verify what's happening in the moment and later.

And then I think yeah, with the API and the data in general, yeah, we'd like to kind of help feed it in to kind of our centralized mechanism because as we're kind of talking about, we have such a diverse set of sources, quantitative and qualitative, that is the data analyst.

It's incumbent upon me to organize all this information and produce data sets that are useful for the community.

So I think the API is going to be really helpful for that to kind of streamline kind of automated alerts and different things about when shutdowns are happening, to kind of organize that information to kind of sort through possible shutdowns a lot more efficiently than we have been previously.


Yeah, well, that's really awesome, but we are out of time.

Thanks so much, Zach, for joining us.

This is always really, really interesting.

I'm excited for rights COD in the summer, so hopefully I will see you there.

But yeah, thanks so much for joining us today and I hope you have a good day.

Yeah, thank you, Jocelyn, you as well.

All righty.

Bye. All right.


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