Internet Freedom Memes

Earlier this month, at our 5th annual Localization Summit in Valencia — a convening for our language contributors, tool developers, UX designers, and partner organizations— we ran our first meme-a-thon competition with attendees focusing on internet freedom themes, and we got some truly amazing results.

Scroll through some of our favorite ones here:

Psiphon AMA (Ask Me Anything)


Psiphon is an open-source Internet censorship circumvention tool, allowing access to blocked content and websites on Windows, iOS or Android.

  • How can Psiphon help you and your community securely and freely access content online?

  • How does Psiphon differ from other VPNs?

  • How can you contribute to Psiphon localization?

Localization Lab is hosting an AMA with the Psiphon team this Thursday, April 5th at 13:00 UTC (09:00 EST)!

What is an AMA? This is an opportunity for people around the globe to ask Psiphon any and all questions about using Psiphon, and localizing it for their regions and communities. 

This is the perfect opportunity to speak directly to the Psiphon team!

In addition to answering all of your questions about using and localizing Psiphon, the team also wants to hear your feedback. What challenges have you faced using Psiphon? When and where has Psiphon successfully connected you to the Internet in the face of censorship? What features and functionality would make Psiphon easier to use for your community?

WHEN: Thursday, April 25th at 13.00 UTC (09:00 EST) (Google calendar invite)
WHERE: Localization Lab Mattermost Channel (Contact us to join the channel)

Not able to join the AMA? Send us your questions and feedback for the Psiphon team and we will share it on your behalf during the AMA.
For encrypted communications, contact
erinm (PGP) directly.

Contributor Spotlight: Why Prioritizing Indonesian Users Should Be at the Top of the Internet Freedom Agenda

Untitled design.png

By Andrea Brás

Localization Lab knows that the work we do would be impossible without the help of incredible contributors who make up the community. The Contributor Spotlight is a way to highlight some of the community members who are unlocking access to digital security technology for users around the world.

This month we want to highlight the work of Indonesian language contributor, Ical. Since joining the Localization Lab community in 2017, he has been answering our calls for the translation and review of tools that his community needs the most. If you have used or shared the Indonesian versions of Tor Browser, Tor Browser Support Portal, Psiphon, Signal (and more), it is because Ical has been a driving force behind their availability.

Localization Lab spoke with Ical about his advocacy work around digital security issues, what motivates him to localize Internet Freedom tech, and why he feels Indonesian users need to be prioritized.

How long have you been interested in tech and digital rights?

I am a digital security trainer who works with activists. I started giving digital security trainings 4 years ago, but I’ve been interested in tech and digital rights for about 7-8 years.

Why are you concerned about digital security? Why do you think that other people should care about protecting themselves online?

Everything we put online is used by corporations and governments without our consent for profit and political purposes. People think targeted ads are helping them, but they don’t realize that corporations are just trying to sell us more products we don’t really need.

There’s no distinction between online and offline life anymore now. There are a lot of online threats which could lead to physical threats as well, and most people don’t realize that. That’s why I think digital security is important to keep our lives secure — both online and offline.

How did you get involved in digital security training? What motivates you to work as a trainer?

I started out because a colleague asked me to be her co-trainer — we have the same concerns about digital security. What motivates me is that digital literacy in Indonesia is so low despite internet penetration being one of the highest among the Southeast Asian countries, and Indonesians have really bad perceptions about privacy and security. I have also heard a lot of cases of outing, doxxing, etc. in the LGBTIQ+ community who are my friends.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face during trainings?

The level of tech-savviness is usually low among my [training] participants and also there is gap between tech and users. All of the tools that I teach were not built taking into account the kinds of the participants I have: The language, the logic, and the context are mostly global north/English-centric. The notion that “tech is difficult and not for everyone” or “I am just a user” is more exacerbated by the difficulty of the tools.

You have been such a big supporter of Localization Lab — How did you find out about the community? Why did you decide to join?

I found out about Localization Lab at a digital rights camp in 2017. I wasn’t aware of what it was about. But after I participated the 2-day sprint, I realized that this could be the answer to some of challenges that I faced during trainings. I think it is really important to make technology, especially digital security tools, speak my own language to make it easier for people to understand. But localization is not just about language translation, it is about translating the tools into a local logic and context so that the tech actually works for us.

Why is it important for your networks to have these tools in Indonesian?

Because most of my participants are not English speakers and they use Indonesian on their devices. Sometimes the tools are confusing for them. But in my experience doing localization, I found a big challenge because some technological terms that are already translated into Indonesian are more confusing because the new translated terms are not popular/ familiar to the general audience.

Why do you think funders, developers and contributors should prioritize Indonesian language and Indonesian users in general?

For me, the reason why Indonesian and Indonesian users in general should be one of the priorities is because Internet penetration here is one of the highest among the SEA countries. Also, the political situation, both historically and currently, are putting activists in danger. In the last few years, the rise of religious conservatism (which translates into state policies/laws) poses a threat to marginalized communities such as LGBTIQ+, religious minorities, and activists.

Burmese Font Issues Have Real World Consequences for At-Risk Users

“Myanmar3, the  de jure  standard Burmese keyboard layout” by  Lionslayer ,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“Myanmar3, the de jure standard Burmese keyboard layout” by Lionslayer, CC BY-SA 3.0

Have you ever received a message containing an empty box (“◻︎”) instead of the readable characters or emojis you were expecting? If you are an English speaker, this is a largely uncommon occurrence. English fonts and tools developed for English-speaking audiences follow the international Unicode Standard, which means not encountering encoding issues that result in those dreaded “◻︎”. In Myanmar, however, where the Unicode standard is not universally adopted and the favored font of users is not Unicode compliant, encoding issues are far from an issue of the past and the effect on the usability of tools is severe. In a country in which groups like journalists, human rights workers and minority ethnic groups face security risks, physical and digital security are in some cases inextricably linked. Without access to secure means of communication and access to information that are also usable in Burmese and correctly display and allow input of Burmese fonts, the physical well being of individuals may be put at risk.

Due in large part to nearly half a century of isolation from the international community and thus exclusion from international development of technical standards, the most popular and widely used font in Myanmar today, ZawgyiOne, is not Unicode compliant. Why is this an issue? As an international standard, Unicode encoding is used across websites, applications and platforms to correctly display the vast majority of written languages in the digital sphere. If a font is not Unicode compliant, it will not be displayed correctly in any tool or resource using Unicode encoding. Similarly, any tool using an encoding system other than Unicode, like the one developed in Myanmar for use with fonts like ZawgyiOne, will not display Unicode compliant fonts correctly.

Below is an example of how these encoding issues manifest:

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 14.41.58.png

How does this affect users?

Particularly now that Myanmar has joined the international digital sphere, encoding incompatibilities are a regular hurdle for Burmese users and the developers and content creators trying to reach a Burmese-speaking audience. Depending on the encoding used on a website for example, you may or may not be able to properly read Burmese text without first installing and changing your browser’s preferred font to one that is compliant with that encoding. Workarounds are even less accessible or impossible for users when it comes to other technologies. While it is possible to have individuals familiar with Unicode-compliant fonts localize technologies that use the Unicode standard, that does not address the fact that the majority of Burmese users not only prefer to input text using Zawgyi-encoded fonts, but may not even know how to use a Unicode-encoded font.

What is the solution?

Many individuals have been working on this issue over the years -- whether creating browser extensions to auto-detect website font encoding, creating font conversion tools or integrating both Zawgyi and Unicode encoding into their tools. Through conversations with Burmese end users, developers and researchers working on this issue, at Localization Lab we would like to put together a guide that is geared toward developers (primarily working in the open source, Internet freedom and humanitarian sectors who are interested in serving Burmese users) and introduce them to the challenges of working with Burmese languages as well as provide some solutions and workarounds. The guide would provide historical and current context for the issue and delve into what can be done in the earlier and potentially later stages of development to ensure that technologies, documentation and educational materials are usable for Burmese speakers. Depending on the available resources, an additional outcome could be further development of existing workarounds and solutions with local technologists.

Tools like Martus and platforms like Facebook and Google have attempted to tackle the issue of Zawgyi-encoding. How have they approached the challenge and what have they learned? How are local developers and technologists approaching encoding issues? What experiences do they have to share with developers who don't have a foundation in Burmese?

Localization Demos & Sprint at IFF 2019: Call for Project Participants

It’s that time of year again! Localization Lab is looking for Internet freedom projects that are interested in participating in our Localization Sprint & Demo Session!

The demo and sprint session will take place on Thursday April 4th from 14:45 - 18:45 in the "Sunny" space at Las Naves and will consist of rotating demos followed by collaborative localization, one-on-one time with localizers and end users, and translation tool support and tutorials.  

As a project owner the Demo & Sprint session is an opportunity for you to showcase your project, get feedback from a diverse group of Localization Lab and IFF contributors from around the globe, kick start and energize your localization efforts by providing valuable context and support for translators on the spot, and build relationships with individuals interested in long-term contribution to your project. 

What should you come prepared to present?

  • 5 - 10 minute demo of your project

  • Answers to the following questions:

    • Who your project is for?

    • Who is it not for?

    • What sets your project apart from any similar initiatives?

    • What are some example use cases for your project?

    • What are your regional or language localization priorities?

    • What are you short and long term project goals, particularly when related to localization?

Due to time and space constraints, the initial demos will be limited to 6 projects. In order to participate, your project should be:

  • Currently supported by Localization Lab either in the Localization Lab Hub in Transifex or on Weblate; and

  • Localizable, ready to accept translations with a localization workflow in place to publish translated and reviewed content.

If you are interested in participating in the Localization Lab Demo & Sprint session please contact Erin and let us know:

  • What your current localization priorities are (the audiences you are trying to reach through localization -- this will help us do targeted outreach); and

  • What you hope to accomplish at the Demo & Sprint session.

*If you are not able to make the Demo & Sprint session, but are interested in interfacing with Localization Lab contributors at IFF, let us know! We would love to host informal localization meetups at IFF for individuals who want to work on localization projects or collaborate with developers outside of sessions. We want to connect you with individuals interested in working on your project!

Bridging the Linguistic Divide: The Impact of Language Rights on Internet Freedom

By Andrea Brás

This graph compares languages IRL (In Real Life) vs languages online.

This graph compares languages IRL (In Real Life) vs languages online.

Access to information on the Internet differs from one language to another; however, users might be surprised at just how much the language they speak conditions their Internet experience. More than 50% of the Internet is in English, which far surpasses the world’s native English speakers and doesn’t come close to representing other majority languages. In fact, according to some researchers, German is the second most visible language online despite representing a much smaller pool of speakers than a language like Arabic.

So how do these statistics impact the Internet Freedom community? To answer this, we looked at language barriers in the human rights sector and how the open source community can play a bigger role in changing the linguistic geography of the Internet.  

Language Rights are a Human Right

Translation is just a small part of the localization process. In the case of technology, localization involves adapting language and software to the regional specifications of the target user. This can include changes to UI/UX design as well as ensuring that local terminology is properly reflected in the tools. If designers and developers don’t take into consideration the cultural and linguistic needs of end-users, they run the risk of incorporating irrelevant analogies, slang, and/or icons that can alienate their intended audience. Localization emphasizes adapting a product to the community and not the other way around.

There are myriad reasons why ensuring technology is available in diverse languages makes sense. From a business perspective, localizing a product has been shown to increase penetration into new markets. In a survey of nearly 2,500 Internet users across 8 countries, 72.4% reported that they would be more “likely to buy a product with information in their own language”. A country that illustrates the potential of localization to boost the uptake of new technology is India. In a recent study, nearly 50% of offline consumers indicate being willing to buy online if the company were to localize its product. Nearly 70% of these same users report challenges when using English keyboards and 60% said language barriers were an obstacle to accessing online platforms. In a country with English as one of its official languages, Indian language speakers (who by and large prefer using the Internet in those languages) are projected to represent nearly 75% of the country’s Internet user base by 2021.

When these findings are taken out of a commercial context and instead applied to the human rights sector, the need and importance of localized digital content becomes infinitely more pressing. How do these reported language barriers impact a user’s understanding of privacy policies or affect their ability to consent when sharing personal information? How might these challenges lead to information access disparities for diverse language speakers in crisis situations? A report by Translators Without Borders states that language barriers have had life-changing and often devastating effects on refugees entering Europe. Interviewees reported issues understanding family reunification procedures, migration rights information, and instructions about how they can get to their desired destination. In the report, one Palestinian man voiced this frustration at the lack of language support:

“I don’t know… Could have been Chinese for all I know. I just couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying [at the registration centre] and they looked at me like I was an idiot. I’m not an idiot, I just speak a different language.”

For the Internet Freedom community, overcoming language barriers through localization can expand the reach of new technologies and address human rights concerns related to freedom of expression, access to information, and a lack of equity online. In the case of developers, making tools available in diverse local languages means they are more likely to be adopted by target users. According to LocLab Shona coordinator Chido Musodza:

“If technology and the internet are going to make any inroads into developing nations, it is important to understand that technology will only be adopted when the local culture and language are reflected in the interface of the tools we are expected to use.”

As an example, Turkey jailed more journalists in 2018 than any other country, and Cambodia, Bangladesh and Russia implemented controversial laws which are slated to severely hinder press freedoms. If a developer has created a technology that could protect the physical safety of journalists from these regions, it’s logical that local UX/UI design considerations and translation should be a priority to reach users who really need these digital security tools. When the target community is made up of at-risk users who may need more technically complex technology to protect themselves from online and physical attacks, supporting language representation can help prevent people from making potentially life-threatening mistakes when using new tools. For LocLab Cambodian contributors, without localized versions of technology, the tools are almost useless within a Cambodian context:

“Young Cambodians are really the only ones who can understand English, so when a tool is only in English it takes a long time for people to adopt the technology. You can’t just put these tools out there and hope people will catch on by themselves because understanding everything on their own is just impossible.”

As members of the Internet Freedom movement who are on the frontline, digital security trainers are also affected by a lack of localized materials. According to a study by Tactical Tech which looked at obstacles to the long-term adoption of healthy digital security practices, researchers found “linguistic and conceptual differences as barriers to learning”. Average users often cite difficulties understanding the technical concepts around digital security topics -- this confusion is compounded for users accessing those same tools in their second or third languages. Trainers working in communities where tools and resources are not available in the local language must transmit complex information and instructions about tools to users who, after the training is complete, might not have access to FAQs or help resources in their language — raising the risk of potential tool misuse.

Open Source to the Rescue

According to LocLab’s Localization Program Manager Erin McConnell, the open source community has already been a major force behind making technology available to diverse language communities:

“Increasing access for speakers of different languages, from different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives also supports the key principles of the open source community -- including principles of open exchange, participation and community. This increased access opens up the opportunity for so much more creativity and ingenuity not only by increasing participation and building community, but also by breaking up the regional and English-language monopolization of information and development.

Open source technology has already been a big part of this solution. With organizations like Mozilla focussing heavily on building a strong international community of localizers and tools like LibreOffice among many others opening up the opportunity to localize into indigenous and minority languages.”

So how do we overcome these language barriers and ensure that current and future users of the Internet are able access the tools they need?

Developers can take steps to ensure that their open source tools are ready for localization and adaptation, and more importantly, they can work with local communities to co-design technology that reflects the needs of diverse end-users. For Tor Project Localization Coordinator Emma Peel, this is a necessary step that Tor is taking to combat inequalities on the Internet:

“...the current situation of localization on the internet reflects how colonialism and cultural imposition have shaped the language landscape around the world. [...] We don’t want these differences to be a barrier to using tools that protect people from tracking, surveillance, and censorship on the web. Localizing technology can even play a role in ensuring a native language survives. When more and more contributors join the movement to localize the internet, the stronger and more sustainable this work becomes.”

As individuals, tackling the lack of language representation online may seem like a daunting task, but the call to change the linguistic makeup of the internet is in being taken up by everyday users who are slowly chipping away at online language barriers — one string at a time.

“I like the idea behind the Tor Browser and I would like to help those who are under dictatorship or strict regimes. Also I disagree with corporations profiting from our privacy and I would like to help provide anonymity for all.”
- Arabic Language Contributor

“Decentralized networking has the potential to empower people in that last mile that large companies may not be incentivized to reach out to. However, language becomes a barrier in some of those cases.”
- Tamil Language Contributor

“Helping Iranians to have free access to the internet.”
- Persian Language Contributor

”I use these apps and services, so I want more people in my country to start using them in my native language.”
- Russian Language Contrubutor

Join the Localization Lab Summit at IFF 2019!

Join us at the 5th annual Localization Lab Summit in Valencia, Spain!

Sunday, March 31st from 09:00 to 18:00

2019 localization summit.png

Are you attending the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain this year? Join us at the 2019 Localization Lab Summit, taking place the day before IFF starts, on Sunday the 31st of March.

The Localization Summit is a chance to identify challenges and opportunities in tool adoption and localization. It's an event for anyone invested in making digital security and circumvention tools accessible for a global audience, promoting local content creation, and supporting more linguistic diversity in the digital sphere is welcome to apply. We are looking for folks working on Internet Freedom technologies or content for a diverse, global audience, like journalists, funders, human rights defenders, digital security trainers, community organizers, UX experts, and developers. We especially welcome communities that use or or are in need of digital security and circumvention resources that are translated, adapted, or created for their unique linguistic, cultural, and technical needs.

The Summit will take place in Valencia, Spain from 09.00 to approximately 18.00 the day before the official start of the Internet Freedom Festival, so please book your tickets accordingly. The Localization Lab Summit provides an opportunity for stakeholders in the internet freedom community to meet and collaborate with the Localization Lab staff, localization contributors, regional human rights and civil society organizations, activists working on Internet freedom and governance issues, and developers of the tools we make available for communities in need. 

If you are interested in joining the Localization Lab community at IFF 2019 by participating in the Localization Summit, please fill out and submit the following application and we will respond with logistical details:

Please let us know if you have any questions, and hope to see you in Valencia!

Highlights from our Southeast Asia Regional AMA with Tor Project

Onion Browser loading page which helps “demystify” Tor

Onion Browser loading page which helps “demystify” Tor

To support the Tor Project’s Global South Initiative, Localization Lab helped coordinate an Ask Me Anything with developers and community members from all over Southeast Asia this month. Since 2016, Tor Project has been organizing meetups around the world, and this year they are making stops in SEA to gather feedback from users and lead workshops around Tor and how it can be used in the region. For our AMA, we were joined by users from around the region to discuss issues ranging from usability, localization, public perception and more.

Here are some highlights from the event:

What is the Global South Initiative (GSI) and how will Tor be supporting users in the region?

Tor Project: Since 2016, Tor Project has been putting a lot of effort into supporting and creating a more diverse community in Tor Project. That means organizing Tor Dev Meetings outside the US and Europe, more translations and localization work, Tor outreach in the Global South — with the big goal to make Tor usable everywhere, for everyone. This month, we're going to visit some countries in SEA: India and Indonesia. During these visits, we're organizing Tor workshops, user meetups and UX tests. We are documenting and discussing GSI activities here: &

What is the goal of the Tor workshops and what topics will you cover?

Tor Project: For many of us that use Tor everyday, we might think that the reasons why we should all use Tor are obvious. But for many users, especially human rights defenders, they don't know exactly the benefits are and why they should use Tor. So, the idea behind this workshop is to gather new users (journalists, human right defenders, activists, bloggers...) and explain why they should use Tor. We also want to learn what's holding their back to use Tor in their daily activities. We don't ask names, ID, passport number or any kind of personal information. Last year, we organized this workshop in many different countries: Brasil, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Uganda and soon in India.

Are there plans to increase the number of relays in SEA and South Asia? What kinds of barriers are there to getting users to set up relays if you know of any?

Tor Project: More relays are not necessarily needed inside SEA, they could be anywhere. There have also been some changes on the Tor protocol that make flaky connections not so easy to break. However, we have only 7000 relays on the network so we do want to have more. Last year, Mike Perry and Chelsea Kolmo wrote this nice article about Network Performance and the research that they're doing: For example, from a network perspective, the servers "don't know" if they are overloaded, so when you try to connect in a overloaded circuit, your connection becomes very slow or times out. So, you need to manually change the circuit. This is a thing that we want to improve.

What is the process for releasing a new Tor Browser locale once all of the translation has been finished? What are some translation priorities?
Tor Project: Tor is based on Firefox, so for a new language to be added to the browser, we need to have Firefox translated to the same language. Then, we need to translate the different extensions that make Tor Browser on top of Firefox. Finally, Tor Project would like to have the documentation translated (although this hasn't stopped languages to be released) because if you start using our software because it is on your language, you are not likely to be able to read the documentation in English, so it makes sense to have the docs translated too. The sysadmins and developers of Tor are also working on ways to make a new language easier to add.

What are some obstacles that prevent users from accessing Tor in SEA?

Connectivity Issues

Users in Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and India reported that their community members felt slow connection while using Tor was a major obstacle to adoption. In low band-width areas where Internet speeds are already affected by the existing infrastructure, adding any additional impediment to speed will likely decrease the likelihood that people will use the tool.

Cambodia: “it usually takes too much bandwidth to load websites via Tor and it is not very user friendly so people who are not very keen to learn new stuff, they are likely to use a normal browser.”

Thailand: “Speed issues are quite a concern here that drives people to carelessly use the fastest browser as possible.”

India: “One problem I saw in general is the actual network speed available in the area. If that is already slow (still in most places in India), one may feel Tor is slow.”

Public Perception

India: “People often have a negative view of Tor because of the news articles. Some people think using Tor is illegal and against the law. There are more articles which tag Tor as "Deep Web" and even some vloggers do the same. And this creates negativity around it.”

Cambodia: “Normally people say TOR is for hackers and digital security savages. And when they say it is for hackers, it means they can have problems using this browser.”

How can Tor Project help demystify Tor for users in SEA?

SEA users: Tor Project can customize outreach materials with designs, animations and analogies that are localized and make sense for each region. The Onion Browser loading page is a good example of use cases that can help explain how Tor can be used by communities like journalists, human rights defenders and everyday users.

When is the next GSI online event taking place?

Tor Project: March 1 - you can connect to us in #tor-south in, it's open! So bring your updates and let's make more plans. Next week we're going to India and then travel to Indonesia. If you live in these countries, let's meet in 'real life'!

How Memes and a Transfer App May Have Helped Popularize VPN Use in Zimbabwe

Header Quote Zim.png

By Andrea Brás

According to Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), the number of recorded Internet shutdowns has spiked from 75 in 2016 to 188 in 2018, with the majority of these affecting users in Asia and Africa.

Recently, Zimbabwean authorities shut down the internet after price hikes on fuel costs brought people to the streets — leading to a crackdown on protesters and the first observed complete internet shutdown in the nation’s history. Disruption to Internet services in the country ended on January 21st after Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled the shutdowns illegal; however, Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services deputy minister Energy Mutodi recently stated that the government would not hesitate to implement these measures again.

After seeing VPN searches shoot up by 1500%, we spoke with our partners in Zimbabwe to learn more about how VPNs are being talked about and shared, and what role memes can play in popularizing their everyday use.

a Total Internet Shutdown: ‘We never saw it coming’

This is not the first time that Zimbabwe has experienced intentional disruptions to their Internet service. In 2016, while Robert Mugabe was still in power, protesters took to the streets en masse to voice their discontent over the country’s economic situation and were met with the shutdown of social media sites like WhatsApp. Because of this previous experience, many people expected a partial shutdown but were unprepared for the more drastic measures taken by the current government. According to Sean Ndlovu, co-founder of the Center for Innovation & Technology and one of Localization Lab’s contributors, when the government implemented a total Internet shutdown, he was caught off guard:

“When the call for shutdowns started, some of us in the digital security sector started telling people to prepare. But in our minds we were thinking it would be something like social media, not the total shutdown of the Internet. The population didn’t really expect that the Internet would shutdown, because I remember people were encouraging others to download Psiphon and other VPNs, and everyone said ‘No, nothing is going to happen. The president won’t mess up his reputation for this’  You know, the regular rhetoric that everything would go according to plan, but, alas, they did turn off the Internet.”

For Arthur Gwagwa, a Senior Research Fellow at Strathmore University, the sentiment of surprise was the same:

“The president has been giving a face to the international community, making them think that he wouldn’t do something like this -- so we never saw it coming. Even during the 2016 protests the internet wasn’t totally shut down like this.”

An Internet shutdown is defined as “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.” This can mean, Internet throttling (or intentionally slowing down Internet bandwidth so as to make it basically unusable), partial Internet shutdowns (like the blocking of specific social media sites), and total Internet shutdowns (also known as blackouts or kill switches). According to a report by OONI Probe, in the case of Zimbabwe, the government implemented all of these tactics -- starting with throttling, then moving on to blocking social media sites like Twitter and WhatsApp, until they finally shut the internet down completely.

Starting on January 15th until January 21st, Zimbabwe experienced some form of disruption to access, with the most drastic kill switch measures indicated as taking place during parts of the day on the 16th and the 18th. According to Gwagwa:

“The shutdown happened gradually. Social media and apps shut down then opened up. When it was open for a little while, this allowed people to communicate with other activists and Zimbabweans living abroad. By potentially trying to protect their international reputation, the government hesitated on a total shutdown and turned the Internet on and off. This window gave Zimbabweans the opportunity to talk to each other and find out what was really going on.”

However, despite Zimbabweans sharing information during windows of time when the Internet was open, misinformation about what was happening inside the country was being spread, most notably by Deputy Minister Energy Mutodi. For Ndlovu:

“The average user didn’t understand what was going on in the beginning. The Deputy Minister of Information came out on national TV saying that the internet was congested which is why it was slow. People started sharing that message… so now you see that there were two narratives. [The government] was peddling their own propaganda and then you have those that were saying, no but the internet is shut down because of A, B, C and D.”

Digital security trainer and LocLab Shona language coordinator Chido Musodza felt that it was impossible for most people to believe the government rhetoric after one of the major Internet Service Providers sent out messages to its clients admitting that they were blocking the Internet:

“We received a text message from Econet telling us that they received a directive from the government to shut down the Internet. After we heard the message from the Minister of Information on national TV saying that it was congestion, we just thought “Who is going to believe that!”

‘VPN Searches in Zimbabwe surge by 1,500%’

According to UK-based service, VPN searches by Zimbabweans surged by 1,500% during the recent shutdown. This happened in tandem with civil society organizations advocating for VPN use from trusted sources on Twitter and other social media sites:

Both inside and outside of Zimbabwe, people began sending VPN suggestions to users via social media. The popularity of VPNs during the shutdown can be seen by the ubiquitous number of tweets, memes, and messages talking about VPNs in the country:

Screen Shot 2019-02-05 at 14.18.37.png
Translation from Shona:  Using WhatsApp and Facebook via a VPN is no different to attending class over the weekend.  There will be no one to chat with!

Translation from Shona:

Using WhatsApp and Facebook via a VPN is no different to attending class over the weekend.

There will be no one to chat with!


Although interest in VPNs was on the rise during the shutdown, accessing them posed a different problem because of existing limitations related to the country’s Internet infrastructure. Zimbabwe ranks 125 out of 200 countries for broadband speed and its users pay some of the highest prices for data packages in Africa — making downloads both costly and slow. In response, many users turned to popular file sharing app SHAREit, which works via Wi-Fi direct. When people were unable to download new apps during the shutdown, those who already had VPNs on their phone were able to use SHAREit to send their VPNs to other community members. Gwagwa was one user who took advantage of this:

“We are such a communal nation -- we are always communicating with each other. Here everyone is everyone’s son or daughter. When the shutdown happened, I went around my neighbourhood and shared a VPN I trusted with my community.”

However, despite people trying to push for vetted VPNs, it would seem that a general lack of understanding about how VPNs work and misinformation about the dangers associated with VPNs caused confusion during the most critical moments of the shutdown. According to Ndlovu:

“People were advocating for VPNs via social media. First via Twitter, then Facebook, then WhatsApp. But when it came to VPNs there was a problem -- most people were just jumping on any VPN that they found in the Playstore or the App Store. So that became a challenge because people in the digital security sphere were pushing for trusted VPNs like Psiphon or Tunnelbear, but then people were out there saying that they were using this and that. After the total Internet shutdown, people didn’t understand that even if you have a VPN you won’t go through because you have no access to the outside world. So again, people are totally confused because they thought that with a VPN you could access the Internet even if it was totally shut off, so there was a bit of misconception going on there.”

Unfortunately, these misconceptions can lead to real digital security issues -- especially when VPNs are being downloaded from untrustworthy sites. It is not unheard of for scams masquerading as digital security apps to lure unsuspecting users into giving up personal and private information. In a context like Zimbabwe’s, when people were urgently trying to get back online, the risk that people could download an unsecure VPN is much higher. This was the case for some of Musodza’s contacts:

“In some situations we realized that people had up to 21 VPNs on their phone. And none of them were the recommended ones. We kept trying to push for trusted and recommended VPNs like Psiphon and TunnelBear. But people were downloading all sorts of things”


Screenshot of phone with VPN downloads. Courtesy of Chido Musodza.

According to Ndlovu, the answer lies in making digital security education more readily available:

“We need literature. We need a campaign to tell people what VPNs are. When you are trying to explain a VPN, often times, no matter how many diagrams you draw, people won’t quite understand. But now, in this context, people are beginning to understand. But, we need to educate them more about the advantages of a VPN, what it is and how to use it. We also need people to know that it is not just about circumventing government restrictions, but it’s also for your own privacy. That’s the message that we need to spread to people.”

Ndlovu thinks that this message should include the importance of making VPNs a part of Zimbabweans everyday lives, and the first obstacle to overcome is making sure that people don’t delete their VPNs after the shutdown ends. Phone memory is often an issue for Zimbabweans, and due to limited space, people need to delete unused apps off of their phones. Gwagwa is pushing for digital security trainers and Internet researchers to take advantage of the current situation and raise greater awareness around VPN use:

“We need to take advantage of the current mood in the country. Now, it is not an option. VPNs should be the first thing people see on their screen. Some people are going to delete the VPN because of phone space. We need to preach the gospel more.”

For Gwagwa, part of the solution may rest on social media -- more specifically with jokes and memes.

“We need to make tools more accessible. Make them easier to understand. Memes have been raising awareness about VPNs because of jokes. They can help by simplifying it into better language. Zimbabweans have a great sense of humor. Even during moments of adversity, we love to laugh.”

According to An Xiao Mina, technologist and author of Memes to Movements, harnessing the power of memes and jokes to spread information about VPN use is a viable strategy to get people interested in this technology:

“Memes are a critical vector for spreading information—for better or worse—through digital media. So it makes sense that information is being spread through memes, and the best way to do that is to create engaging and humorous content that will get people's attention and hopefully drive them to good VPN adoption.

The risk, of course, is that memes can also spread misinformation about VPNs. The most effective memetic methods, then, combine the humor and engagement of memes with other forms of education and engagement about proper VPN usage.”

If done the right way, humor may just be the key to getting more people to download and use secure and vetted VPN apps. But as we saw during the Zimbabwe shutdown, this still won’t help when governments decide to turn off the Internet. In these cases, Ndlovu says we may have to look to the Internet Freedom community for help:

“We need a safety guide with offline solutions for total Internet shutdowns that we can trust and use so that people don’t just jump on any tool that they hear about on the Internet. I think we are going to have more protests in our future, so that means the potential for more shutdowns [in Zimbabwe] is high and we need these solutions now.”