ChokePoint Project - Who Watches the Watchmen?

During the uprising in Egypt, in January 2011, the order was given to “turn off” the Internet, sending shock-waves around the world. Murmurs were heard of US security agencies and American politicians asking for access to a similar kill switch.

Since then Internet access has been manipulated in many other countries where citizens have sought to bring down regimes, while in other places there are ongoing restrictions to free Internet access, despite this access being declared a fundamental human right by the United Nations.

These actions force us to look at who owns The Internet?

The ChokePoint project is a response to the Arab Spring uprising where a group of us wanted to take action and do something useful. The project is made of 2 parts, one being a near real-time internet censorship monitoring platform. This includes a data collection part and a visualization element which is a public facing site. We will be able to monitor whether connections have been cut in specific regions of countries, helping alert journalists and activists. The platform will be based on reliable data, visualized in a very accesible manner, featuring contextual information for each country. This system could also help in natural disaster situations by detecting the extent of damage done. See a prototype here:

At the same time we are developing an educational project to inform politicians, NGO’s, journalists, researchers, students and other interested parties about the realities of how the Internet works, including its underlying structures, through workshop modules aimed at the non-geek and focussed on participation.

When we began the project, we didn’t know the real scope of what we were trying to achieve, but it quickly became apparent that we didn’t have the skills needed to carry it out.  We reached out through our networks and were lucky to find some very talented, very committed people and gained some buzz by winning the Next Idea category at Ars Electronica.

Some of the team came together at the Chaos Communication Camp in August to work on the system architecture and subject it to the scrutiny of people from around the world working on similar projects. The architecture is vital in this project because it is necessary to get real data from users worldwide, often in hostile environments and without compromising their security.  Again the network responded and we made some very important contacts. Since then we’ve been working on the dataviz as well as doing outreach with politicians, hackers, journalists, bloggers, organisations, rights groups and anyone else with an interest. The prototype platform was developed at the the first EU Hackathon at the EU parliament in Brussels in November, and we’ve done workshops & presentations and attended many events. Oh yes, and started to work on fund-raising as we’ve been doing this in our “spare time” up until now.

Ironically, I’m not a “hacker” at all, if by hacking we’re talking about technical skills. But I do have a JFDI (Just F***ing Do It) mentality which I guess is similar to hacking. The situation now is probably worse than when we began the project so doubtless the knowledge aquired and contacts made so far will be even more useful in the future.

The threat you don’t see

This project is really interesting, thank you very much for sharing it. What strikes me most is how little we know about the kind of problem you are trying to address. I am an eartly adopter and a heavy user of the Internet, but I admit I had no idea of the extent to which, for example, courts and government agencies are using online surveillance as a normal working tool. For example, I was vaguely aware of the existence of a Google Transparency Report detailing the number of requests for accounts data by country (here is the page for Italy), but it had not really sank in that the authorities are asking Google for access to 200 accounts a month in Italy alone - and that Google complies in most cases.

What I am trying to get at is that the Internet feels like a free space, an electronic frontier that we are colonizing together, far from the restrictions of the offline world. This feeling is misleading. There are threats to our online rights, and they are all the more dangerous because they are so difficult to perceive as such.

In a democracy, the fact that governments own the Internet is - at least in part - a guarantee for all. But we all know it is not that simple: government agencies might go rogue, and the global nature of the Internet opens the way for foreign agencies, unaccountable to the home electorate, to compromise it. So I think it is really important that we gain a better knowledge of how our digital communication networks work at a deep level. This inevitably means coming to terms with the technology, the nuts and bolts of the global Net. So it’s down to hacking for change - and making an effort to explain this hacking to laypersones like me. A more informed citizenry means more freedom for all and more solid democracies.

Visualising the threat you don’t see

Yes, you’re right Alberto, if it is difficult for heavy users of the Internet to know what is going on, how are laypeople to access this information? We’ve worked hard at the visualisation for exactly this reason, as a lot of technical details and statistics are often offputting (even assuming it’s possible access real data). There’s a blog post here which goes into detail about what the prototye shows and another here about the process of creating the icons - two user experience “hacks” which are really important.

As you say, perceptions are misleading - we hope the CPP can help contribute to an informed citizenry.

More “visualisation”

Talking of visualisation - there’s a great example here

Comment faire pour protéger nos droits ???

Merci pour cette Mission report, je suis tout à fait d’accord avec tout ce qui a dit Alberto qu’on a des droits en utilisant internet.

“What I am trying to get at is that the Internet feels like a free space, an electronic frontier that we are colonizing together, far from the restrictions of the offline world. This feeling is misleading. There are threats to our online rights, and they are all the more dangerous because they are so difficult to perceive as such”

Pour cela il faut trouver une solution pour protéger nos droits sur cette base que l’on utilise des heures chaque jour, mais je ne sais pas comment faire tant que toutes les autorités en conflit avec les grandes entreprises qui manipule internet.