How Uganda blocked social media, again

Country: Uganda

Probed ISPs: Orange (AS36991), SMILE (AS37122)

Censorship method: IP blocking

OONI tests: HTTP Requests

Measurement period: 2016-05-12

Last Wednesday, the Ugandan Communications Commission (UCC) ordered ISPs to block access to social media leading up to the (fifth) inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni, who has governed the country since 1986. Authorities argued that the blocking was ordered for “security purposes”, but the move directly harms political opposition, which has relied on social media to organize a “defiance campaign” of protests.

This is the second time that Uganda has decided to pull the plug on social media this year.

Three months ago, Ugandan ISPs were ordered to block access to social media during the general elections. Following these reports, OONI tests were run in the country and results showed that Facebook and Twitter appeared to be blocked in specific networks. In similar fashion, OONI tests were run again in Uganda last Thursday, in an attempt to not only provide evidence of the blocking, but to also determine how censorship was implemented.

Today we are releasing data which indicates that two ISPs in Uganda – Smile Telecom (Uganda) and Orange – carried out IP blocking to censor access to major social media services. Interestingly, OONI’s findings illustrate that social media is not consistently blocked across networks, and that certain cases of censorship can be easily circumvented.

Findings

OONI’s HTTP request test, which is designed to examine whether websites are blocked or not based on a comparison of HTTP requests over Tor and over the network of the user, was run from two different vantage points in Uganda last Thursday: Smile Telecom (Uganda) and Orange. As, in some cases, ISPs only block the unencrypted HTTP endpoints of websites, tests were also run against the encrypted HTTPS endpoints of social media services to examine whether those were accessible.

The table below illustrates a comparison of the censorship implemented by Smile Telecom (Uganda) and Orange, based on OONI’s measurements:

Blocked by ISP

It’s interesting to see that while Smile Telecom (Uganda) blocked access to both the HTTP and HTTPS endpoints of Facebook and Twitter, Orange appears to have only blocked the unencrypted HTTP endpoints of those sites, enabling its users to access them via HTTPS. Furthermore, Smile Telecom (Uganda) appears to have blocked the HTTP endpoints of both WhatsApp and Viber, neither of which appear to have been blocked by Orange.

Possibly, this difference in censorship indicates that ISPs were not ordered to block specific services, but were only given a vague order to “block all social media”, leaving each provider the flexibility to choose which services to block and how to block them. The ISPs don’t appear to be too pleased with the UCC’s order to block access to social media. This is evident through the tweet of the network operator MTN Uganda:

“Dear Customer, per UCC directive all social media is temporarily blocked, our other services are available. We regret any inconvenience caused.”

Circumventing censorship

Social media in Uganda was censored both times this year based on IP blocking, according to OONI’s measurements. This form of censorship can be circumvented by accessing a blocked website over HTTPS, rather than HTTP (if the HTTPS endpoint of a site is not blocked). If that doesn’t work, users can bypass censorship through the use of Tor, which is designed to make its users’ traffic appear to come from a different part of the world.

As for circumventing the censorship of mobile applications, like WhatsApp or Viber, Android users can try using the VPN mode of Orbot which enables all apps on their device to run through the Tor network.

Orange:

HTTP Twitter (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/BOp0pU9RHsh7qV0U1LY5wlXlLvGQAqPvyehbCppPcF6rYqHbsCMfQWL9rUrfBhCt?input=http:%2F%2Ftwitter.com

HTTPS Twitter (Not blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/BOp0pU9RHsh7qV0U1LY5wlXlLvGQAqPvyehbCppPcF6rYqHbsCMfQWL9rUrfBhCt?input=https:%2F%2Ftwitter.com

HTTP Facebook (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/BOp0pU9RHsh7qV0U1LY5wlXlLvGQAqPvyehbCppPcF6rYqHbsCMfQWL9rUrfBhCt?input=http:%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com

HTTPS Facebook (Not blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/BOp0pU9RHsh7qV0U1LY5wlXlLvGQAqPvyehbCppPcF6rYqHbsCMfQWL9rUrfBhCt?input=https:%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com

HTTP Whatsapp (Not blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/BOp0pU9RHsh7qV0U1LY5wlXlLvGQAqPvyehbCppPcF6rYqHbsCMfQWL9rUrfBhCt?input=http:%2F%2Fwww.whatsapp.com

HTTP Viber (Not blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/BOp0pU9RHsh7qV0U1LY5wlXlLvGQAqPvyehbCppPcF6rYqHbsCMfQWL9rUrfBhCt?input=http:%2F%2Fwww.viber.com

Smile Telecom (Uganda):

HTTPS Twitter (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/ppXcO0JBDky6if2GtBi7zrYUoTG4gnVdwiUvEDrOkcsUbWJfj2KCvaBciBEDFzkI?input=https:%2F%2Ftwitter.com

HTTP Twitter (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/ppXcO0JBDky6if2GtBi7zrYUoTG4gnVdwiUvEDrOkcsUbWJfj2KCvaBciBEDFzkI?input=http:%2F%2Ftwitter.com

HTTPS Facebook (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/ppXcO0JBDky6if2GtBi7zrYUoTG4gnVdwiUvEDrOkcsUbWJfj2KCvaBciBEDFzkI?input=http:%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com

HTTP Facebook (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/ppXcO0JBDky6if2GtBi7zrYUoTG4gnVdwiUvEDrOkcsUbWJfj2KCvaBciBEDFzkI?input=https:%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com

HTTP Whatsapp (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/ppXcO0JBDky6if2GtBi7zrYUoTG4gnVdwiUvEDrOkcsUbWJfj2KCvaBciBEDFzkI?input=http:%2F%2Fwww.whatsapp.com

HTTP Viber (Blocked) https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/measurement/ppXcO0JBDky6if2GtBi7zrYUoTG4gnVdwiUvEDrOkcsUbWJfj2KCvaBciBEDFzkI?input=http:%2F%2Fwww.viber.com