Defending Online Freedom: Three Organisations in Action

Internet freedom has been threatened globally due to the rise of censorship, internet shutdowns, and surveillance. Such actions have significantly impacted individuals' ability to access information, express themselves freely, and communicate with others online. Fortunately, there are organisations fighting against internet shutdowns and censorship.

In this blog, we will discuss three such organisations. Each of these organisations shared with us insights learned from their experiences as part of our new shutdown academy courses.

1. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is a media organisation that promotes democratic values by providing accurate, uncensored news and open debate in countries where a free press is threatened and disinformation is pervasive. RFE/RL operates in 23 countries and 27 languages. The organisation reports the facts undaunted by pressure and tries to circumvent censorship where there is internet censorship.

In our “Mitigating internet censorship” course, Patrick Boehler, the head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, warned against the “illusion of openness” that occurs when governments block individual websites.

"As a user, you see that the rest of the internet may still be accessible, and you feel like you're seeing the totality of information that is relevant to you or the totality of information that you need. And targeted censorship removes individual publishers from that debate and risks dramatically distorting it." he says.

Boehler emphasised the need to build strong relations with the audience and continuously educate the community on tools and strategies to circumvent censorship.

"What we also do is we do callouts inviting audience members to ask us questions. So if they have questions, they can write to us on whatever platform is still accessible. And we look through these questions and try to answer them -- the most frequent questions they may have." he says.

2. VE Inteligente

Both our “Mitigating Internet Censorship” and “Mitigating Internet Shutdowns” courses are produced in collaboration with VE sin Filtro project by Ve inteligente. VE inteligente is a Venezuelan organisation that has been documenting and resisting internet censorship since 2014, exposing state-sponsored digital attacks, internet outages and other threats and promoting digital security best practices in novel formats.

In addition to the course production, Valentina Aguana and Andrés Azpúrua from VE Inteligente shared their own experiences navigating days of long shutdown in Venezuela in 2019 as part of a case study.

"The first thing that we learned is always to expect the unexpected and the worst case scenario, which was having no power and no Internet for many, many days. After having that experience, we are much more prepared and our communities are much more resilient", says Aguana.

From mapping political scenarios to determine the likelihood of shutdown to preparing a toolbox for secure communication even during blackouts, VE inteligente team emphasised the need to strengthen community preparedness.

“Share the knowledge gained (..) with your family, friends and community, because as you may have noticed, the effectiveness of some of these solutions depends on community-wide adoption.” - Andrés Azpúrua, VE inteligente.

3. TunnelBear

TunnelBear is a VPN service provider that allows users to bypass internet censorship and access the internet freely. The Canada-based company had long championed internet freedom alongside partner organisations. In times of conflict and censorship, TunnelBear stepped up, offering extra gigabytes for tunnelling, as seen in Venezuela and Ukraine.

In an interview for our “Mitigating Internet Censorship” course, Dave Carollo, product manager at TunnelBear, stressed on the need for vigilance when choosing which VPN service to use.

“With a VPN service, you should always review the privacy policy first because the most important thing to look at is whether or not they're collecting any of your browsing data and doing anything with that. You do not want a VPN service that collects your browsing data at all.”, he says.

Over six years ago, TunnelBear became the first ever consumer VPN to publish a third-party security audit to the public. These transparency initiatives are factors you should take into account when deciding on your VPN service.

“I would look for a VPN service that has something like a security audit that they conduct on their service that they transparently post results about. Or transparency audits are another type of audit that VPN providers can do where they might talk about requests they get from the government for user information.” Dave Carollo, product manager at TunnelBear.

Initiatives and organisations like Ve inteligente, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and TunnelBear continue to fight for a free and open internet. By providing accurate information, promoting digital security best practices, and offering tools to circumvent censorship, these organisations are helping communities access an open and free internet.

These case studies are part of our new courses “Mitigating Internet Censorship” and “Mitigating Internet Shutdowns” from the Internet Shutdown Academy. The academy features 10 courses in seven languages, taught by experts from leading organisations and is designed to educate activists, journalists and anyone impacted by internet disruptions and online censorship.

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