Building Resilience Ahead of the Next Internet Shutdown
By Collin Sullivan
Since the military coup in Myanmar on February 1st, Localization Lab has shifted its priorities to focus on coordinating urgent localization efforts to support access to free and open internet and safe communication in Burmese and other local languages. This has meant working with contributors to localize tools requested by affected communities and local partners, which have experienced increased downloads and active users. These include tools like TunnelBear, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that can help people access blocked content; Signal, a messenger that prioritizes privacy and security; and Briar, a messaging and publishing app designed to work without an internet connection; among others.
We are very grateful for the rapid localization support we have received from several organizations and projects, allowing us to coordinate dedicated contributors to remove language barriers, making these tools accessible to millions more who could benefit from them.
We also wish these urgent language needs had been addressed before such a crisis hit.
A preparatory approach — one that prioritizes localization, accessibility, distribution and (if necessary) training prior to a crisis, instead of in response to one — needs to become the preeminent model for internet freedom tools.
Shutdowns have become increasingly common, and circumvention tools commonly experience a spike in local interest as connectivity plummets. At Localization Lab, it is common to see a flood of new requests to make relevant apps available in local languages when a crisis breaks out, and for new contributors to join projects and work on those languages.
Both are happening today in Myanmar. Within two days of the coup, Bridgefy, an app widely used by activists in Hong Kong during the protests in 2019 and 2020 to communicate via Bluetooth when internet connectivity was unavailable, was downloaded there more than a million times. After Facebook was blocked on February 4th, 2021, VPN usage in the country increased to more than seven times what it had been only days earlier. The Tor Browser saw a jump in interest and downloads, too, though usage dropped after various forums reported that military personnel were looking for people with the app installed on their devices.
Such was the case, too, in Belarus in August 2020, when internet access shrank to 20% of typical levels amid protests following a controversial presidential election. Psiphon, another proxy tool that we are localizing into Burmese, saw its adoption in Belarus escalate suddenly and dramatically, from around 10,000 users to more than a million in a single day.
One reason it was able to accommodate such a sudden spike in interest is that it is the only VPN provider available in Belarusian. As one Psiphon co-founder pointed out, “No one else is doing that.”
Localized tools and guides need to be as diverse as the needs of the communities they are built to serve. Movements are dynamic and their needs and tactics shift according to which information is blocked and censored, and which circumvention tools are working. The more resources are available in local languages, the more tools they have available to choose from that fit their needs best–leading to stronger and more resilient movements and communities.
These preparatory models need not be imagined, only prioritized, expanded, and scaled. Internet shutdowns, to some degree, are predictable. For example, last August the Zaina Foundation hosted a localization sprint in Tanzania ahead of the upcoming elections there. Elections have become common trigger points for internet shutdowns, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in many parts of Africa and southeast Asia.
Anticipating a possible shutdown, Zaina Foundation and Localization Lab collaborated on a localization sprint where participants translated circumvention software, including Psiphon, so it would be available in Swahili, building upon the previous year’s work of localizing digital security guides. Just months later in another sprint organized with the Arusha Women School of Internet Governance (AruWSIG), contributors localized additional resources into Swahili, including a censorship circumvention guide.
This need extends to written guides as well, which can be quite useful for preparation and self-training. And while there is a clear need for more localization (we are currently working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to localize their widely-cited Surveillance Self Defense guides into Burmese), there is also a need for clear, concise, and specific guidance on how to prepare for an internet shutdown. An accessible, localizable, and widely available resource dedicated specifically to the common challenges and potential mitigations around internet shutdowns would serve many and support the preparatory model championed here.
But a shift like this will require more than a new guide, and will require all of our cooperation. It will take funders providing more resources to toolmakers and local organizations for long-term resiliency programs; developers writing their tools with multiple audiences and contexts in mind from the beginning; and training and support organizations building shared contextualized expertise with local communities around circumvention and resistance so plans to access information are established before the crisis hits.
Most importantly, we can only expect a preparatory model to be effective if local partners and users are centered at every step. They know what tools and resources people need, how they use them, and the gaps that need to be addressed. Local partners are best positioned to develop the content that will work for their communities, and that can then be adapted to support regions experiencing similar challenges. Involving those communities should not be a box to be checked, but a central guiding tenet that shapes projects and partnerships.
We recognize, too, that there will always be a need for rapid response during crises. But by adopting a more preparatory approach, we shrink the number of challenges that require a rapid response when a crisis hits, so that funding and labor can be applied to different needs, ones that are now more urgent.
A time of crisis is not the time to build resilience, but to wield it. We stand in solidarity with those who seek to secure their communications and access the open internet in Myanmar, and we invite our colleagues in the internet freedom space to join us today in undertaking the necessary work to support and prepare the communities who will face the next internet shutdown, and the next one, and the next one.