Sinar Project
Project Title Measuring and Detecting Network Interference in Southeast Asia
Amount Awarded USD 20,000
Dates covered by this report: 2019-09-06 to 2019-09-06
Report submission date 2021-04-19
Economies where project was implemented Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia
Project leader name
Khairil Yusof
Project Team
Choon-Siang Lai [email protected]
Kelly Koh [email protected]
Isad Chung [email protected]
Partner organization OONI, Engage Media, Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), Thai Netizen, The Citizen Lab - University of Toronto, Netalitica

Project Summary

This network measurement research aims to show current and past Internet censorship and network interference in media, political criticism, religion, gender and social media networks in South East Asian economies using network monitoring nodes around the region. Additionally a pilot gender gap social audit will be conducted for a marginalized urban community in Malaysia to research and measure non-technical gaps in Internet access such as affordability, Internet literacy, knowledge or rights, and accessibility and availability of gender-related content.

Table of contents

Background and Justification

The situation of repression of freedom of expression on-line in South East asia is escalating,  an ethnically, politically, and linguistically diverse region which includes, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand,  Timor-Leste, and Vietnam with over 160 million internet users.

Since July 2015, Malaysian government has blocked at least ten websites, including online news portals (Sarawak Report, Malaysia Chronicle, The Malaysian Insider, Asia Sentinel, Medium) and private blogs, for reporting about the scandal surrounding Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak over his mysterious private dealings with RM2.6 billion. In Thailand old estimates put the number of websites blocked at over 110,000 and growing back in 2010.

In Myanmar in 2012 almost all of the previously blocked websites of opposition political parties, critical political content, and independent news sites were accessible, with only 5 of 541 tested URLs categorized as political content blocked.

In Cambodia there are no government restrictions on access to the Internet or credible reports that the government monitors e-mail or Internet chat rooms without appropriate legal authority however NGOs have expressed concerns that online blocking is happening.

Deployment of network monitoring nodes that collects data and tests for network interference in this region would therefore allow continuous objective technical monitoring for network interference and provide proof if any such actions are happening in a region with increasing numbers of internet users and serious concerns network interference to restrict freedom of expression online. It will inform the availability and reliability and security of the Internet in Asia-Pacific through collection and publication of online public data collected from a variety of node tests, published at the Online Observatory of Network Interference  as well as through RIPE Atlas. It will support the development of the research community by coordinating and providing technical support to country partner organizations in deployment of OONI & RIPE probes, network tests and the implications of their results. It will also improve existing OONI network interference tests based on local network conditions and constraints through input from local research partners.

Malaysian Government has initiatives for free community Internet access points and community Internet facilities, and are often announced as initiatives to bridge the digital gap and use of development funds from the Universal Access Fund contributed by ISPs. There is however almost no research done on the reliability of the Internet provided by these facilities, and whether there are technical restrictions or censorship on content. There is also no research on the non-technical gender gap of Internet access, such as affordability, literacy, access to devices, knowledge of rights and availability/accessibility of online content and services of importance to women and communities. As a complement to the technical network measurements, a pilot social audit with a marginalized urban community group to measure gender gap using Web Foundation Gender Gap Toolkit is also proposed to give a complete picture of both technical and non-technical barriers to the Internet.

Since the start of the project, after Covid-19 pandemic at the start of the 2020, Southeast Asia has regressed in terms of democratic freedoms, with increased use of authoritarian powers under the guise of controlling the pandemic. February 2021 saw a military coup in Myanmar leading to Internet censorship and shutdowns, emergency powers in Malaysia suspending parliamentary democracy and enactment of Anti-Fake News Act, and continuous decrease in democractic freedoms in Hong Kong. Lockdowns and restriction of movement has increased demand for remote work and Internet access, along with exposing inequality as a result of lack of access to the Internet. This has increased focus and importance on the ongoing work of this project and partners on monitoring censorship, but also gaps in data covering marginalized communities' access to the  Internet.

Project Implementation

The project aims to improve reporting of Internet censorship through the use of evidenced based collection of network interference measurements in Southeast Asia. To date, most  country Internet censorship reports cite news reports that quote individuals. In collaboration with the Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI) which develops the tests that can be run on mobile phones, personal computers and servers, global and country test-lists maintained by Citizen Lab and local partners in Southeast Asia, this project hopes to improve coverage of these tests in this region. Reports and analysis done by partners, will also help contribute to evidence based network measurement data on Internet censorship.

Regional Workshop

A regional workshop was conducted, with digital rights civil society participants from Southeast Asia to introduce them to basic Internet functionality, common methods of network interference and methods of testing and collecting data using OONI tools. Data collected from these apps will be continuously published automatically to OONI open observatory (some public info may be restricted for safety reasons.).

The project engaged partners and participants to help improve Citizen Lab test-lists for their respective countries to ensure test coverage covering different key human rights and gender related websites. In collaboration with Netalitica, additional research for updates to Malaysian test-lists was done, along with providing contacts of our regional partners for updates for other countries.

Human Rights Regional Censorship Dashboard

A web dashboard was developed to make country analysis of anomalies from censorship data against Citizen Lab test list human rights categories such as media, political criticism, LGBT, religious freedom and others to make it easier for researchers to write reports.

Community Social Audit

Finally a Community Social Audit using Web Foundation Digital Gender Gap Scorecard Audit was also conducted for a low income urban community, to provide additional detailed insights on demographics and community access to Internet issues, in addition to general network interference and usage measurements.

The region in general faces constraints on freedom of expression as well as institutional and technical capacity for digital rights and civic tech. The funding for this project came at a time when the host organization was down to just one person and contemplating shutting down. Regional partners also face similar constraints in addition to possible threat of state persecution.

Collaboration and regional community support was therefore key to this project. The open source tools and data, enabled collaboration and contributions beyond the immediate activities of this project. Development of the web dashboard highlighted how the collaborations between different partners can increase the impact and usefulness of the work of all partners. Internet penetration and affordability also has grown exponentially in this region, making the ongoing technical testing and communications between partners in the region sustainable.

Despite these challenges, the feedback from partners have led to improvements in testing features and methodology by OONI, to address the needs of partners in the region, especially for monitoring long term trends in Internet censorship, as well as time critical events such as elections and political unrest.

The original proposed use of cheap Raspberry Pi devices for collecting test data, was replaced by far more accessible mobile, desktop and server apps by the OONI team, leading again to increased adoption and test data by local partners and their communities such as Thai Netizen The analysis reports on network censorship, despite being limited in number due to capacity constraints, continue to be cited, because they are often the only technical censorship reports backed by measurement data available for this region.

Project Evaluation

Expected project outcomes:

  • Improved access to the internet, including understanding tools to circumvent website blocks, connection blackouts, and widespread censorship from knowledge of types of network interference and censorship methods affecting users
  • Increased awareness of restrictions on Internet access both technical and non-technical by non-technical users of the Internet such as civil rights organizations and marginalized communities, but with supporting evidence enabling them to demand better access from decision makers and service providers including the government.
  • The project collaborates with international and open projects such as OONI and Citizen Lab, the increased amount of data collected and improvements from this will benefit global community researching and measuring network interference.
  • The team will learn how to combine both technical and non-technical measurements of Internet access when conducting social audit, to provide a more complete and inclusive picture of Internet access beyond technical measurements and impacts to communities. This will provide a good base research methodology for government to use and measure effectiveness of community Internet access projects

The Internet censorship reports generated by this project continue to be cited as they are often the only technical reports available for Internet censorship covering a wide range of issues. As the Internet becomes increasingly important as the main source of access to information, association and services, so too will be the importance of the Internet censorship and access reports as a component in various reports on media, human rights and access to services. As such, the expected outcome on increased awareness is considered to have been achieved successfully.

Similarly, collaborating openly, leading to benefits for the global community researching network interference and censorship, not just for increased impact, but also support due to political, technical and financial constraints faced in this region. This was not just a regional collaborative effort, but a global one between academic, technical and human rights organisation partners. Improved global test-lists for academic research, increased quality and coverage of censorship measurements in respective countries, and better data and coverage lead to better reports in support of the goals of rights organizations in respective countries.

The social audit was successfully done, providing data on affordability, access and needs of the selected local low income urban community.  The findings confirmed the need for computing equipment during Covid-19 lockdowns, especially desktop and laptop computers. The audit found that 95% of those in the bottom 40% income bracket only had access to mobile phones to access the Internet. The project found that the original community WiFi service was not working. Complaints filed led to the installation of a working community public WiFi service for the community. Computing facilities were provided for the community library, where low cost computing equipment was tested for suitability for the needs of users, such as attending online-classes for students affected by lock-down. Post-project, follow support is planned to better capture long-term impacts of Internet access on education, jobs and income and other social indicators, that was made possible due to access and computing facilities provided by this project.

IndicatorsBaselineProject activities related to indicatorOutputs and outcomesStatus
How do you measure project progress, linked to the your objectives and the information reported on the Implementation and Dissemination sections of this report.Refers to the initial situation when the projects haven’t started yet, and the results and effects are not visible over the beneficiary population.Refer to how the project has been advancing in achieving the indicator at the moment the report is presented. Please include dates.We understand change is part of implementing a project. It is very important to document the decision making process behind changes that affect project implementation in relation with the proposal that was originally approved.Indicate the dates when the activity was started. Is the activity ongoing or has been completed? If it has been completed add the completion dates.
Number of citations of the dashboard censorship reports by local and international media and civil societyNo citations, other than that of older reports.Reports on findings of network censorship measurementsReport: Online LGBT Censorship Malaysia, Regional Southeast Asia workshop, Human Rights Censorship Dashboard, Country Report for Philippines, Report on Laws Cited for Internet Censorship in MalaysiaCompleted. Newer reports, improvements in censorship dashboard and citation of reports continue to be collected and worked on.
Increased coverage (test urls and ISPs) of OONI data measurements for targeted countries (via data analysis of OONI results)No updates to add additional sites to test-lists.Updates to Citizen Lab test-lists for countries.Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2019 workshop, Malaysian test-list updates including gender related sites, Direct and indirect reporting on OONI measurements have led to improvements in lists for Myanmar and ThailandCompleted. Updates to test-lists for Southeast Asia is an ongoing process, and new updates to lists for Southeast Asia continue to be added. By this project and by partners.
Issues resolved or new features implemented as a result of issues filed by Southeast Asian research team and partnersNone.Filing technical issues and feedback on testsReview of OONI Probe Mobile App 2.0, Regional Workshop ReportCompleted. OONI Probe apps, mobile, desktop and server command line now cover the use case needs for censorship monitoring in Southeast Asia. Feedback on the newer probes and tests will continue.
Changes in government policies to address non-technical digital gaps affecting women and marginalized communitiesNone.Reports and analysis of network measures and issues related to Internet Censorship. Social audit.Child Pornography and Internet Censorship report, Monitoring Censorship of Gender-Related Online Content report. Social audit report, complaints on non working community wifi led to installation of new public access wifi.Completed. Censorship monitoring and testing are ongoing. Social Audit Report published.
Number of women's groups using research to address digital gaps for current and future Internet community access pointsNone.Undertake social audit and report on findings.Social Audit Survey of 111 responses, completed along with setup of community Internet access facilities which are currently in use. Social audit report published.Completed

Gender Equality and Inclusion

The project uses Citizen Lab test lists to collaborate on development of comprehensive test-lists covering a number of rights based categories, including websites that deal with gender and marginalized groups.

Despite the removal of categories such as Women’s Rights from Citizen Lab test-lists, contributions to the lists can still ensure that gender related content and websites are tested and included for analysis. The urls contributed by Sinar Project for the Malaysian test-lists included information, resources and services related to women’s health, sexual education, gender based violence and women’s rights.

Priority on coverage of urls in test-lists to cover marginalized and at risk groups, also ensured that internet censorship of these groups would be detected. Our report on detection of LGBT Censorship in Malaysia and Indonesia, was cited by Outright Action International campaign for global LGBT censorship testing campaign.

Proposed updates to the list, pending review for Malaysia will also include urls of websites of human rights organisations as well as content related to religious and ethnic minorities. The project report on Laws Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) cites for blocking different categories of websites helped uncover what laws were being used to block various websites which can be used for strategic litigation by lawyers along with technical evidence of the technical censorship in place .

Knowledge gained from technical methods used for censorship, also allowed the project to highlight issues on privacy and surveillance, on possible use of technical censorship measures to block Child Pronogography.

Project Communication Strategy

Project outputsStatusAssessmentDissemination efforts
Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) Southeast Asia Regional WorkshopCompletedSuccessfully ran Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI) Southeast Asia Regional Workshop 2018, on running OONI Probe tests with partners from Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and VietnamWorkshop Report on website
Online LGBT Censorship Malaysia  ReportCompleted2018-08-13 Published Report from online testing data indicates that at least 3 international LGBT related sites are on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) block list. While local sites are freely accessible.Censorship Report published on website Malaysia and Indonesian reports cited  for Outright International LGBT blocking measurement campaign. Cited in Freedom on the Net Malaysia 2019 report.
Regional Human Rights Censorship Dashboards censorship.sinarproject.orgCompleted2019-03-23 Censorship website launched covering Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam2019-07-31 Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2019 workshop Participation and session at The Citizen Lab Summer Institute (CLSI) a an opportunity to meet a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, and advocates and develop new and exciting research that addresses pressing questions for the Internet. Session Report:
Improving Test Lists For Use By Wider Audience CLSI Test Lists Session Report Back
Report:  Internet Censorship Monitoring: Duterte's Drug WarCompleted2019-04-18 Testing for censorship and network interference for Philippines online media so far has not found any conclusive evidence of any form of online media censorship. Engagemedia with support of the public, will continue to run and monitor online media for signs of future censorship.Report published online
Report: Laws cited for Internet Censorship in MalaysiaCompleted2019-04-17 Laws Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) cites for blocking different categories of websites in addition to Communications Multimedia Act 233 and Copyright Act, also include State Shariah ActsReport published online: Stories of Collaboration: Sinar Project x Local Partners (Code4All) Amnesty International Unsilenced campaign for freedom of speech in Malaysia cites this
Test LIsts UpdateCompletedNetalitica for rigorous updates for Southeast Asia test lists. Lists pending approval upstream. Malaysian test-list updates: 2019-01-11 Updates to test-lists to increase test-list coverage for gender-related websites for Malaysia.Update published on website on research for updated test lists for Malaysia Report on Gender related website updates to test-lists for Malaysia published on website
Report: Child Pornography and Internet CensorshipCompletedCalls for blocking of child pornography in Malaysia raises questions on technical constraints and negative impacts on privacy. We look at the implications, and alternative solutions.Published on website
Social Audit of Community Internet Access Facilities and ServicesCompletedSocial Audit Survey of 111 responses, completed along with setup of community Internet access facilities which are currently in use.Project data and report published on website

Project dissemination by the organisation was mostly through publication of reports on the organization website and social media. The organization's social media accounts are followed by local journalists covering digital rights, as well as more established organisations. This leads to the project work being covered and organically disseminated by journalists and organisations if the outputs are of interest.

As the reports are often the only source of technical findings on censorship, they end up being found for desk research and news reports needing additional background information.

For regional and global dissemination, the project depended on partners such as OONI and Citizen Lab, through participation in their events, and being featured in their communications efforts. A similar approach was followed for local partners, such as sharing project outputs with campaigns on freedom of expression, religious or media freedom.

Examples of this include:

For the social audit, communications were done via a local community partner focal point, and other community leaders. This is the normal practice for short term community projects, where Sinar Project has not yet built any form of trust or relationship with the local communities.

Recommendations and Use of Findings

For future projects that work on tests and measurements for network interference or censorship, it is highly recommended to partner and work with the global community around these efforts led by OONI and Citizen Lab. Contributing additional tests, to the open source OONI tests, will allow projects to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and lessons learned from the development of apps and services, along with a global community of partners for testing at a global scale. This includes data and results that can be compared against other countries.

The project has benefited from the development of OONI testing apps by OONI and contributors, and additional support for guidance and updates to test lists from Netalitica to make them more useful for researchers. The open data API of the measurements, also provides infrastructure for rapid development of custom dashboards and data analysis without duplicating efforts in building the data infrastructure from collection of data.

Social audits are important to capture data of marginalized communities, and can help to build a good baseline for future projects and in understanding the needs of these communities. It is also important to find community leaders to work with, who end up being instrumental in making sure community projects go well and building trust for long term collaborations.


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