On the blocking of pro-choice websites: Women on Waves and Women on Web

Coding Rights
Oct 29 · 17 min read

A report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), Coding Rights, Women on Waves and Women on Web.

Authors: Maria Xynou, Federico Ceratto, Arturo Filastò from OONI; Joana Varon from Coding Rights; Rebecca Gomperts from Women on Waves & Women on Web

Image: By Clarote (Coding Rights)

As abortion remains partially or totally criminalized in numerous countries, the fight to promote sexual and reproductive rights, as well as women’s health, also relies on access to information. But recently, we were told that the website of the abortion rights non-governmental organization womeonwaves.org, which provides reproductive health services and education to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws, was inaccessible in Brazil.

Thanks to Coding Rights’ community engagement activities, many Brazilians have been measuring the blocking of websites — including womenonwaves.org — over the last few years through the use of OONI Probe.

Coding Rights is a Brazil-based feminist organization focused on issues pertaining to gender and technology. OONI Probe is free and open source software designed to measure the blocking of websites and various other forms of internet censorship. Hundreds of thousands of OONI Probe users run censorship measurements in around 210 countries every month.

To check whether womenonwaves.org is blocked in Brazil and in other countries, we analyzed OONI measurements from around the world. As part of our analysis, we also checked whether womenonweb.org — the sister organization of womenonwaves.org — is blocked around the world too.

In this report, we share OONI data confirming the blocking of womenonwaves.org in Brazil, as well as in Iran and Turkey. We also share OONI data on the blocking of womenonweb.org in South Korea, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Background

While many parts of the world have acknowledged some aspects of gender inequality and have progressively changed their practices and legislations towards the promotion of women’s rights, the protection of sexual and reproductive rights, particularly the right to have an abortion, remains a taboo subject. As such, in some countries, abortion is still criminalized in complete disregard of women’s right to self-determination, dignity, health, bodily autonomy, and, ultimately, their right to life.

The World’s Abortion Laws Map from the Center for Reproductive Rights illustrated below shows us the status of abortion laws around the globe.

Source: Center for Reproductive Rights, The World’s Abortion Laws

In the blue countries of the map, abortion can be performed upon request, while the laws in the green countries permit abortion under a broad range of social and economic circumstances. The laws in the yellow countries only permit abortion on the basis of health or therapeutic grounds, while the laws in the red countries only allow abortion when the woman’s life is at risk. The laws in the maroon countries do not permit abortion under any circumstances (including when the woman’s life or health is at risk), as abortion is strictly prohibited altogether. There are cases in which even providing information about abortion practices could be considered a crime.

According to the UN Human Rights Council Working group, on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice the ability for a woman or girl to make her own decisions about pregnancy “is at the very core of [her] fundamental right to equality, privacy and physical and mental integrity and is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights and freedoms”. The group also stressed that when the legal and safe voluntary termination of pregnancy is not possible, “unsafe abortions cause the deaths of some 47,000 women each year and a further five million suffer some form of temporary or permanent disability.”

To change the legal scenario, protests and civil society pressure for decriminalization have been common in several countries. As a result, the United Nations Human Rights Committee released a General Comment on the Right to Life in 2018 which calls upon States to “not apply criminal sanctions against women and girls undergoing abortion or against medical service providers assisting them in doing so, since taking such measures compel women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion.”

Nancy Northup, the President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, welcomed the text stating that “comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion, are necessary to guarantee the right to life, health, privacy, and non-discrimination for women and girls.”

The UN text also affirms that States should “ensure access for women and men, and, especially, girls and boys, to quality and evidence-based information and education about sexual and reproductive health and to a wide range of affordable contraceptive methods, and prevent the stigmatization of women and girls seeking abortion.”

Aligned with the thought of such recommendations, and to support women in countries with restricted access to safe abortion, Dutch physician Dr. Rebecca Gomperts founded Women on Waves in 1999. This abortion rights NGO aims to prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy. And Women on Waves does so in several ways.

Women on Waves sails a ship to countries where abortion is illegal. On the ship — in international waters (where local laws do not apply) — Women on Waves provides women with abortion services, contraceptives, information, and training. Since 2001, Women on Waves have traveled to numerous countries to support women, including Mexico, Guatemala, Morocco, Spain, Poland, Portugal, and Ireland.

Image: Women on Waves, Abortion Ship Campaigns

Apart from sailing ships, Women on Waves have also used robots and drones to deliver abortion pills to women in Poland and Northern Ireland.

Image: Women on Waves, Abortion Drones

Women on Waves also provide trainings to organizations around the world with the aim of disseminating information about misoprostol to support safe abortions. In addition, they provide safe abortion hotlines, a safe abortion mobile app, as well as training manuals and several other resources. In 2014, a documentary (“Vessel”) focusing on the work of Women on Waves was released and won numerous awards.

To provide online abortion services for women in countries where there is no legal access to medical abortion, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts (also) founded Women on Web in 2005. This service provides an online consultation with a doctor to support a safe abortion, contraceptives, as well as information about the abortion process. Women on Web (WoW) also publish abortion stories from women around the world. For all this work, WoW are recognized worldwide as a source of information on sexual and reproductive rights.

As abortion remains criminalized in several countries and Women on Waves has adopted unconventional tactics to support safe abortions around the world, their websites (womenonwaves.org and womenonweb.org) have been censored by certain governments. In the following sections of this report, we share relevant findings.

Blocking of Women on Waves and Women on Web

Both https://www.womenonwaves.org and https://www.womenonweb.org have been tested internationally fairly regularly since they were first added to the testing in October 2017. Every day, the results from OONI Probe tests around the world are openly published.

We analyzed OONI measurements to examine the blocking of www.womenonwaves.org and www.womenonweb.org around the world. We found that, beyond Brazil, these sites appear to be blocked in several countries, as illustrated below.

Source: OONI measurements from 2019, https://explorer.ooni.org/

Our analysis, based on which we produced the above chart, is available here.

OONI data, as demonstrated in the above chart, suggests blocking of both womenonwaves.org and womenonweb.org in Turkey. Brazil and Iran only appear to block www.womenonwaves.org (but not www.womenonweb.org), while South Korea and Saudi Arabia appear to only block www.womenonweb.org (but not www.womenonwaves.org). Women on Waves acknowledge the blocking of womenonweb.org in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and share circumvention advice.

Recently (August 2019), womeonwaves.org was temporarily blocked on VEON (AS8402) in Russia, which can be confirmed since a block page was served. Access to the site, however, has since been unblocked, as more recent measurements from that network show that it is accessible. In general, most recent womenonwaves.org measurements suggest that the site is accessible in Russia.

Quite similarly, OONI measurements from the testing of womenonweb.org in Egypt presented anomalies on Telecom Egypt (AS8452) between 12th June 2019 to 19th June 2019, suggesting potential temporary blocking. However, the limited volume of measurements and the absence of a block page (and the fact that the measurements have been successful subsequently) limit our confidence in confirming this.

Recent OONI measurements collected from Jordan suggest potential blocking of womenonweb.org and womenonwaves.org. As of September 2019, all measurements collected from the testing of these two sites on several different networks in Jordan consistently presented anomalies, providing signals of potential blocking. The relatively limited volume of measurements though — and the absence of a block page — limit our confidence in confirming this as well.

While womenonwaves.org is generally accessible in Europe, we found the site blocked on a school network in the United Kingdom. Quite similarly, OONI measurements reveal the presence of WatchGuard filtering technology used to block access to womenonwaves.org on Charter Communications (AS11426) in the United States. These measurements, in particular, show that this web filter has a “pro-choice” blocking category, suggesting that other abortion sites may be blocked on the same network as well.

Source: OONI measurements

Interestingly enough, womeonwaves.org and womeonweb.org are accessible in most countries that prohibit abortion, including countries like the Philippines, which strictly prohibits abortion and does not permit it under any circumstances.

In the following sections, we share more details on the blocking of womenonwaves.org and womeononweb.org in Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey.

Brazil

In Brazil, voluntary termination of pregnancy is only allowed when the pregnancy is the result of rape, if the life of the woman is at risk and, after a huge struggle of abortion rights activists, in the case of anencephaly.

Charges can result in 1 to 3 years of imprisonment for the pregnant woman and up to 4 years for the doctor or anyone who helps out with the abortion. Nevertheless, making it illegal has not prevented abortion practices, but it has led women to resort to alternative and insecure means.

According to “Pesquisa Nacional de Aborto” (National Research on Abortion), more than half a million women in Brazil resorted to clandestine abortion in 2016. In 2018, the Brazilian Ministry of Health stated that such numbers could reach more than a million. As a result (also according to data from the same Ministry), usafe abortion practices accounted for the death of 203 women in 2016 (which represents 1 death every two days). Over the last decade, it is estimated that around 2,000 women (particularly black young women who do not have the resources to access elite clandestine clinics) have died in Brazil as a result of unsafe abortions.

The magazine AzMina was recently denounced by the far-right Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, for posting an article with information about safe abortion from the World Health Organization. Currently, the magazine is being sued, journalists who signed the article have also been victims of doxing and other forms of attacks on social media, and they are running a crowdfunding campaign to deal with the legal expenses.

In August 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court held a 2-day public hearing to consider whether the country’s abortion laws violate constitutional protections. The hearing was covered under the hashtag #NemPresaNemMorta. A report by the Minister Rosa Weber is yet to be released.

Public intervention in reference to the dystopic novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” in front of the Supreme Court during a hearing to decriminalize abortion in Brazil. Image by Heloisa Adegas.

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, the founder and director of Women on Waves and Women on Web, was one of the experts invited to the hearing. As part of her testimony, Dr. Gomperts highlighted the lack of access to legal abortion in Brazil in cases of rape and even in cases where the pregnancy is a risk for the woman’s life — as documented in emails received through the Women on Web helpdesk.

Earlier this year, our Brazilian community members reported that they encountered difficulties accessing www.womenonwaves.org. To investigate potential blocking of the site, we coordinated further OONI Probe testing and analyzed relevant OONI measurements collected from Brazil.

The following chart illustrates OONI findings based on the testing of womeononweb.org and womenonwaves.org on multiple networks in Brazil from 1st January 2019 onwards. While womenonweb.org is accessible in Brazil, access to womeonwaves.org appears to be blocked.

Source: OONI measurements: Brazil 2019

Almost all measurements collected from the testing of womenonweb.org on many different networks across Brazil consistently showed that the site was accessible throughout 2019. The testing of womenonwaves.org, on the other hand, consistently presented TCP/IP anomalies, strongly suggesting that access to the site is blocked in Brazil.

While womenonwaves.org appears to be blocked on several networks, it’s worth highlighting that it’s not blocked on all networks in Brazil, as demonstrated in the following chart.

Source: OONI measurements: Brazil 2018–2019

Most testing was performed on Claro (AS28573), where multiple measurements consistently presented TCP/IP anomalies (since at least January 2018), strongly suggesting that this ISP blocked access to womenonwaves.org. Many anomalies were also detected on Telefônica Brasil (AS27699), which is branded as Vivo, suggesting potential blocking of womenonwaves.org on that network as well.

Data collected from the Satellite test of Censored Planet (between 1st January 2019 to 30th September 2019) suggests the DNS based blocking of www.womenonwaves.org in Brazil. Satellite scans the internet for open DNS resolvers and performs queries to them in an attempt to identify DNS based blocking. These checks are performed from vantage points outside of the country using open DNS resolvers, which means that the filtering observed on these resolvers may not necessarily be experienced by users in Brazil.

Out of the 1,730 probed DNS resolvers, 4 of them (‘201.76.164.227’, ‘200.196.48.21’, ‘189.75.28.176’, ‘128.201.60.50’) presented signs of interference throughout most of 2019. In particular, these resolvers respond to queries for the domain www.womenonwaves.org with the following IPs: ‘200.196.48.41’ (17/17 measurements return this IP), ‘192.68.2.1’ (1/1 measurements), ‘200.31.1.49’ (1/35 measurements).

Overall, this is one of the few cases where we observe internet censorship in Brazil through OONI measurements. We previously reported on the blocking of WhatsApp in Brazil 3 years ago, but those cases were public, widely discussed by the media, and they only lasted a few days. Now we observe internet censorship in Brazil targeting information that is essential to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

To examine the impact of the blocking, Women on Waves shared Google analytics stats. Interestingly enough, the number of visitors to womenonwaves.org from Brazil was 357,554 from 1st January 2019 to 25th October 2019, down from 1,165,445 in the same period in 2016, but slightly higher compared to 242,071 during the same period in 2018.

While most Latin American countries prohibit abortion (and some — like Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Suriname — prohibit abortion altogether, without any exceptions), they do not appear to censor access to abortion information, while Brazil appears to be the only Latin American country that censors access to womenonwaves.org (according to OONI measurements).

OONI measurements suggest that womenonwaves.org is accessible in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. However, it’s worth noting that these findings are limited to the networks and the time during which womenonwaves.org was tested in each country. That is to say that the site might potentially be blocked on different networks where tests were not performed, or that the site might have been blocked since the last time it was measured in each country. Further OONI Probe testing of womenonwaves.org is therefore encouraged.

Iran

Abortion is illegal in Iran. It is only permitted when necessary to save a woman’s life and in cases of fetal impairment.

OONI measurements collected from multiple networks in Iran over the last year show that access to womenonwaves.org was blocked, while access to womeonweb.org was accessible, as illustrated below.

Source: OONI measurements: Iran

We can confirm the blocking of womenonwaves.org in Iran as blockpages were served by several ISPs, such as Dadeh Gostar (AS56402) and Aria Shatel (AS31549).

However, it’s worth highlighting that the blocking of womenonwaves.org in Iran is non-deterministic, as we observe that the blocking of the site is inconsistent site over time, and that it is not blocked by all local ISPs. Instead, we observe ISPs — such as Dadeh Gostar (AS56402) — flipping between blocking and unblocking access to the site over time.

We previously documented this non-deterministic censorship pattern in Iran and we observe similar patterns with regards to the blocking of womenonwaves.org as well.

Google analytics (shared by Women on Waves) show that 18,796 visitors from Iran visited womenonwaves.org between 1st January 2019 to 25th October 2019, compared to 714 visitors during the same period in 2016, which suggests that the blocking is less effective than before.

Saudi Arabia

Laws in Saudi Arabia permit abortion on the basis of health or therapeutic grounds, but spousal and/or parental authorization is required.

OONI measurements collected from Saudi Arabia over the last year show that (contrary to Iran) access to womenonweb.org was blocked, while access to womeonwaves.org was accessible, as illustrated below.

Source: OONI measurements: Saudi Arabia

The above chart presents aggregate measurements per month. Almost all measurements from the testing of womenonweb.org from February 2019 onwards consistently present HTTP failures on multiple networks (such as Integrated Telecom (AS35753), MTC KSA (AS43766), and Saudi Telecom (AS25019)), indicating that the site was blocked. Only HTTPS requests are failing, though, likely indicating the presence of some Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology looking at the SNI field of the TLS handshake. It’s worth noting though that access to womenonweb.org is not blocked on all networks in Saudi Arabia, as measurements collected from Bayanat Al-Oula (AS35819) showed that it was accessible in July 2019.

Google analytics (shared by Women on Web) show that 51,257 visitors from Saudi Arabia visited womenonweb.org between 1st January 2019 to 25th October 2019, compared to 102,679 visitors between 1st January 2016 to 25th October 2016.

South Korea

Abortion is illegal in South Korea, as its laws only permit abortion on the basis of health or therapeutic grounds, particularly in cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment. Though earlier this year, South Korea’s consitutional court ruled the abortion ban unconstitutional and ordered that the country’s abortion law must be revised by the end of 2020.

OONI measurements collected from South Korea over the last year show that access to womenonweb.org was blocked, while access to womeonwaves.org was accessible, as illustrated below.

Source: OONI measurements: South Korea

We can confirm the blocking of womenonweb.org in South Korea because a blockpage is served (for example, by Korea Telecom (AS4766)). Through OONI measurements, we observe the consistent blocking of womenonweb.org in South Korea from January 2019 to date.

On the other hand, almost all measurements collected from the testing of womenonwaves.org on multiple networks in South Korea consistently show that access to the site was accessible over the last year.

Google analytics (shared by Women on Web) show that 52,366 visitors from South Korea visited womenonweb.org between 1st January 2019 to 25th October 2019, compared to 70,098 visitors during the same months in 2018.

Turkey

Abortion in Turkey is legal until the 10th week after the conception, and can be extended if the life of the woman or the fetus is endangered. Even though the abortion procedure is legal in Turkey, it has been reported that in reality there is a de facto ban.

OONI measurements collected from Turkey suggest potential blocking of both womenonwaves.org and womeonweb.org, but access to the sites doesn’t appear to be consistently interfered with.

Source: OONI measurements: Turkey

Several OONI measurements (spread out across the testing period) for womenonwaves.org and womenonweb.org show that interception is happening at the DNS level, strongly indicating some intention of blocking. Specifically, this is evident through the following five measurements:

Through these measurements, we can see that queries for womenonwaves.org result in an answer pointing to 213.14.227.50, which is an IP address associated with a Turkish ISP.

Below we share the relevant whois record for it:

Since the URL was tested with HTTPS, we are unable to retrieve a blockpage. The TLS handshake fails early during certificate validation and therefore we do not retrieve the content of the tested page.

But by doing an HTTP based test using curl (even from outside of Turkey), we are able to verify that when we pass the `www.womenonwaves.org` Host header in a request to that IP address, we are given a blockpage, as demonstrated below.

What is unclear, though, is why this type of blocking does not happen consistently across all measurements, but only affects a very small set of measurements.

Our findings are corroborated by Censored Planet data, which also shows that the IP address 213.14.227.50 is used by the Turkish ISP to implement blocking for www.womenonwaves.org and www.womenonweb.org (as well as for these other websites: verystream.com, openload.co, imgur.com, streamango.com).

Google analytics (shared by Women on Web) show that 10,878 visitors from Turkey visited womenonweb.org between 1st January 2019 to 25th October 2019, compared to 170,347visitors during the same months in 2016. Google analytics also show that 10,942 visitors from Turkey visited womenonwaves.org between 1st January 2019 to 25th October 2019, compared to 141,862 visitors during the same months in 2016.

Censored on social media platforms

Apart from the blocking of their sites in several countries, Women on Waves and Women on Web have reportedly also experienced other forms of censorship as well.

In May 2017, Women on Web tweeted that their Facebook page was unpublished. Facebook reportedly censored the Women on Web page (which helped women obtain abortion pills) citing its policy against the “promotion or encouragement of drug use”. Their page though was only temporarily unpublished, as Facebook restored access to it soon thereafter.

This was not the first time that Women on Web experienced censorship on Facebook. In January 2012, Facebook deleted an image from the page of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts (the founder and director of Women on Web) which consisted of text instructions on how to safely induce an abortion using medication.

In addition to Facebook censorship, Women on Web have reportedly experienced censorship by Twitter and YouTube as well. In January 2015, Twitter temporarily disabled the possibility to link to womenonweb.org or to tweet a link to the website. In January 2018, YouTube temporarily removed the video channels from Women on Waves and Women on Web, both of which contained animations with information about safe ways to do an abortion with medicine.

Conclusion

Our analysis of all OONI measurements collected globally on the testing of womenonwaves.org and womeonweb.org from 1st January 2019 onwards suggest that womeononwaves.org is blocked in Brazil and Iran, womenonweb.org is blocked in Saudi Arabia and South Korea, while both sites presented signs of blocking in Turkey.

Our findings are summarized in the following table:

We can confirm the blocking of womenonwaves.org in Iran and the blocking of womenonweb.org in South Korea, because blockpages were served in both cases. Our measurement analysis also suggests blocking of womenonwaves.org in Brazil and blocking of womenonweb.org in Saudi Arabia. Several OONI measurements collected from Turkey for womenonwaves.org and womenonweb.org show that interception is happening at the DNS level, strongly indicating intentional blocking.

As this study was carried out through the use of free and open source software, open methodologies, and open data, it can potentially be reproduced and expanded upon.

To monitor the accessibility of womenonwaves.org and womeonweb.org in your country:

You will then find the results in the Test Results section of your OONI Probe mobile app. The results will also automatically be published on OONI Explorer within 24 hours (unless if you disable publication in the app settings).

To coordinate further testing around the world, share the aforementioned OONI Run link with other OONI Probe users. To circumvent the blocks, use Tor Browser.

Coding Rights

Coding Rights é uma organização liderada por mulheres dedicada a promover a compreensão sobre o funcionamento de tecnologias digitais e expor as assimetrias de poder que podem ser ampliadas por seu uso.

Coding Rights

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Tecnologia e Direitos Humanos

Coding Rights

Coding Rights é uma organização liderada por mulheres dedicada a promover a compreensão sobre o funcionamento de tecnologias digitais e expor as assimetrias de poder que podem ser ampliadas por seu uso.

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