Why Did An Internet Censorship App Send My Phone To Hardsextube.com?

Why Did An Internet Censorship App Send My Phone To Hardsextube.com?

Cannabis.com, GayEgypt.com, Circumcision.org, WhitePower.com and, yes, HardSexTube.com are all sites that the Tor Project’s new app pointed my iPhone towards this morning. Don’t worry, it’s all for a good cause.

Image: OONIapp logo.

The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) has been around for the last five years or so, but its software suite, Ooniprobe, only existed as a command line-installable desktop software package. Sponsored by the Tor Project — best known for its mostly secure Tor web browser — Ooniprobe seeks to map where internet censorship is taking place via a live map. Unsurprisingly, the Australia and the US are largely unaffected while Russia, China and Saudi Arabia aren’t so lucky.

Image: OONI’s live map which shows where censorship reports are most prevalent.

As of today, Ooniprobe is available as an Android or iOS app that even the least computer savvy but censorship-concerned internet user can easily install. That is, if the warnings in the markedly easier installation process don’t scare you half to death.

“The mere use of ooniprobe might be viewed as a form of espionage, regardless of the laws in your country,” the welcome screen warns, “we encourage you to consult with a lawyer prior to installing and running ooniprobe.” New York is in the middle of a snowstorm, and I don’t exactly keep legal counsel on retainer, so that didn’t happen. The same screen warns potential users that the app will “download data from provocative or objectionable sites (e.g. pornography)” as you may already have guessed.

Ooniprobe’s “risks” page describes the possibility of “severe civil, criminal, or extra-judicial penalties” such as being assaulted or targeted for surveillance. Caveating the whole thing is the disclaimer: “The risks described below are quite speculative. To our knowledge, no ooniprobe user has ever faced consequences from the risks described below.” Hmm.

Image: Some of the sites Ooniprobe visits

As to the app itself, the web connectivity test is the meat of its functionality. Essentially it attempts to visit a slew of sites which range from mundane email portals (hotmail.msn.com) to the Air Force’s F-35 Lightning II page (jsf.mil). At the same time, a server tries to get to those same pages and if they load differently it’s flagged in red as potentially censored. Ooniprobe’s test sites are, as The Atlantic points out, a list built collaboratively between OONI and Citizen Project and aim to catalogue crucial services or controversial content most likely to be censored. (Flatteringly, our sister site Jezebel made the cut.)

The app seems to give plenty of false positives. Among the supposedly censored sites were sex toy site realdoll.com, kids.yahoo.com, myspace.com and metacrawler.com, all of which worked just fine on desktop. Ooniprobe’s helpful suggestions to avoid being denied the full scope of Real Doll’s online retail website are to use open DNS (check), force HTTPS (which most browsers now do by default) or to use the Tor browser (Tor is not presently available on iOS).

Currently, the only other two tests included in this mobile build of Ooniprobe are an HTTP Invalid request test and a standard speed test. The former showed “no anomaly” and the latter gave me upload, download and ping times comparable to Ookla’s industry-standard speed test.

So what have we learned from this experience? Internet censorship isn’t really happening on an infrastructural level in Australia or the US — at least not in a way this app can detect it. And even though you’re unlikely to be sent to a gulag for installing Ooniprobe, pinging WhitePower.com has definitely landed me on some sort of watchlist.