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

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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:

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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.”

Briar App for Internet Shutdowns: Key Takeaways from the AMA

Sharing Data with Briar via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Internet

Sharing Data with Briar via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Internet

By Andrea Brás

After the Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe, user stories began pouring in about everyday people turning to tools like Psiphon and TunnelBear to circumvent the social media blockage. But what tools are available when the Internet is completely down? To answer this question, Localization Lab organized an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) with Michael Rogers, one of the developers of Briar app.

Briar is a messaging app that syncs over Wifi or Bluetooth, keeping users connected during a shutdown who are in close, short range proximity with each other.

Here are some takeaways from the AMA with Briar:

How can you use Briar to communicate when the Internet is off?

  • During a total internet shutdown, devices need to be in Wifi or Bluetooth range to exchange data. That’s a 10-20 meter range. Messages can be synced with other devices when you are in range of their devices. That means, if you wanted to communicate with a group on the other side of town, someone would have to travel across town to carry the data to them. For example:

Is Briar a mesh network?

  • It is not exactly a mesh network. You can't set up a real time connection across the mesh. Instead, it’s more like each device is carrying the data and spreading it to its contacts.

How do you authenticate messages with Briar?

  • To add a contact, you must scan a QR code from each other’s screens. Those QR codes will allow you to exchange your Briar identities which include cryptographic keys used to sign messages. For example, when someone leaves a message in a forum it will have an icon next to their name indicating if the messenger is someone you know.

How does Briar work in low band-width areas?

  • Communication over Wifi it's usually very fast, Bluetooth is slower, and if you're connected to the internet it will depend on your connection speed.

Do you get to see all the devices that are within your range? Can you decide who to transmit a particular message to?

  • You can only see your contacts’ devices if they are in range via Wifi or Bluetooth. Your device will only share things that you’ve chosen to share with them (like a forum you’ve invited them to and vice versa).  

How is Briar different from Firechat?

  1. Briar only connects to your contacts whereas Firechat will connect to any other Firechat user who's in range.

  2. With Briar, everything is encrypted and data is only shared with people you choose to share it with whereas Firechat is more like a public square where everything is in the open. Firechat gives anyone in the crowd the ability to join the conversation. Briar gives you a lot more control over who can be part of each conversation, which may be more suitable for an activist group type of scenario rather than a crowd in a public square type scenario

What are some features that you are planning (or thinking about) for the future?  

  • Mailbox feature: We're adding something called a mailbox, which is a second device, like a spare phone or a raspberry pi, that sits in one place and collects data from anyone who comes within range and shares it with people who come in range later. So it's like an extra hop that extends the effective range of your network.

  • Sharing information with people outside of your contact list: We are considering an option that would allow data to travel further across the network by hopping onto devices that don't belong to your contacts. The data is encrypted so they can't read it, they just carry it.

  • File sharing: We are currently working on sharing image attachments. Other file types will be supported in future.

  • iOS version: iOS is difficult because the platform is very strict about what apps can do while they're running in the background. But once we've implemented the mailbox (see comments above) it should be possible to get something working. It won't be possible to support push notifications though.

Where can you download Briar?

You can download Briar from google play or f-droid: It is currently only available for Android, not iOS.

How can we contact you if we have more questions about Briar?

Feel free to drop by our Mattermost at

Tor Project AMA (Ask Me Anything): Southeast Asia Style!

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Tor Project's Global South Initiative is coming to Southeast Asia and they want to hear from Tor users from around the region!

Localization Lab and Tor Project will be hosting an AMA (Ask Me Anything) next Tuesday, February 5th to coincide with Tor's trip to Southeast Asia.

What is an AMA? This is an opportunity for users across Southeast Asia to ask the Tor Project team any and all questions they have about using Tor in their regions and with their communities. 

This is the perfect opportunity to interface with the Tor team and other users of Tor from around the region!

Come with questions about how to use Tor and specifically in different SEA contexts, how to localize Tor into languages needed in your community, what kinds of resources are available in your language. The Tor team is also interested in hearing your feedback. What challenges have you faced using and teaching others to use Tor? What features and functionality would make Tor easier to use for your community? 

How can the Tor Project support you and your community better?

WHEN: Tuesday, February 5th at 11 UTC (17:30 Yangon, 18:00 Bangkok/Jakarta, 19:00 Manila/Singapore/Taipei)
WHERE: Localization Lab Mattermost Channel (Not a member? Contact us to join)

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

Before, During & After: Localization Relies on Communication with Developers

By Erin McConnell


In an ideal world, a few dedicated multilingual volunteers would be all that is required to make open source technology available for communities in need. Individuals would translate and review the resource and then it would immediately be released. In reality, however, publishing new translations requires more than multilingual manpower. Translating technology resources is a complex process that involves a number of steps to ensure a tool can be localized as well as active communication with developers before, during, and after the translation has taken place.

There are many considerations that need to be taken into account before a tool can be published in a new language. The user needs to be able to access the translations in the app, either through an in-app language selector or through operating system support, languages like Arabic need right-to-left support, and developers need to have the resources and manpower to continually update multiple languages.

Maintaining open channels of communication with developers helps ensure that tools are ready for localization. This preparation is important for all of our work at Localization Lab, but even more so during Localization Sprints.

Prior to the Sprint

When preparing for a recent Localization Sprint, initial communication with the developers and content creators of the tools was key in determining which applications could be localized and how and when they would be published.

Sprint participants at FIFAfrica in September 2018.

Sprint participants at FIFAfrica in September 2018.

The ultimate goal of the sprint was to finish updates to Signal iOS and Android, and fully localize Signal Desktop in Bahasa Indonesia, Khmer and Burmese. Through communication with the Signal team we solidified the following information:

  • Signal Android and iOS could support all three languages.

  • The languages would be included in the in-app language settings (This means that the language can be selected in the app even when the rest of the device doesn’t support the language.)

  • Signal Desktop is limited by Electron framework so Burmese could not be supported.

  • Signal Desktop does not have in-app language which meant that any users would need to use their entire desktop device in Khmer or Bahasa Indonesia in order to use the application.

  • Signal Desktop, Signal Android, and iOS updated translations with new releases approximately every three weeks.

Our conversations with developers allowed us to better understand which applications could be localized, where to focus our translation efforts, and approximately when finished translations would be incorporated into the applications.

Participants at the Southeast Asia Sprint

Participants at the Southeast Asia Sprint

During the Sprint

Localization provides users with an intimate look at a tool, its features and functionality, design and the source language used. Sprints are, thus, an excellent opportunity to gather user feedback from communities that might not otherwise have the opportunity to provide thoughts and suggestions to developers. At sprints we collect feedback throughout the localization process, but we also facilitate discussions and walkthroughs for groups and individuals in order to gather information about the user experience. This feedback is then aggregated and shared with developers after the sprint, and we follow up on any progress to implement feature requests and resolve bugs.

We focused discussions at this sprint on “Life after Localization” and the community outreach and marketing of localized Signal and other digital security tools. This left participants with a lot of useful information on the resources that are available to engage communities, what challenges they faced when trying to increase adoption of tools, and strategies for increasing uptake.

After the Sprint

Following Localization Sprints, there are two main areas where Localization Lab follows up with developers: Coordinating the release of finalized translations and communicating user feedback from events.

There have been situations in the past when content was not published as expected or a new language was not added to the in-app language list, and in those cases we followed up closely with developers to identify why content had not been published and to ensure it was made available as soon as possible. The feedback we are able to gather from the events are invaluable for developers who want to make their tools accessible and user-friendly for diverse language communities. Sprints allow participants to have an intimate view of the tool and its use, putting them in a unique position to say whether or not a tool’s interface and terminology choices are culturally relevant for their communities.

Key Takeways

  • Communication with developers is key before, during and after a Sprint takes place.

  • It is always preferable to have developers available at events to bridge the gap between the people creating technology and the people who are using it.

  • End-user opinions matter! Diverse end-user feedback is essential when it comes to ensuring that a tool is adopted in a new community. When developers prioritize diverse end-users in the design of their products, communities are more likely to feel ownership of those tools.


Invitation to Apply: 2019 Localization Lab Summit & Sprint

Localization Lab is now accepting applications for Localization Lab contributors interested in attending this year's Localization Summit and Sprint! The Summit and Sprint will coincide with the 2019 Internet Freedom Festival which takes place from April 1st - 5th in Valencia, Spain. The Summit will take place on March 31st and is a full day event. The Localization Sprint date and time are still TBD, however it will take place during regular IFF 2019 programming.

The Localization Summit and Sprint provide an opportunity for you as a Localization Lab translator and contributor to meet and communicate face-to-face with the Localization Lab staff; fellow volunteer contributors; regional human rights and civil society organizations and activists working on Internet freedom and governance issues; and developers of the tools that you work tirelessly to make available for those in need.

If you are interested in joining the Localization Lab community at IFF 2019 by participating in the Localization Summit, Localization Sprint, and community social events, please fill out and submit the application.

(If you are a developer or content creator and would like to join the Summit or Sprint on behalf of your project, please contact info@localizationlab.og for more details.)

Before you apply, please note the following:

  • You must have a confirmed IFF 2019 ticket in order to attend the Localization Lab Summit and Sprint. If your IFF ticket has not yet been confirmed, you are still welcome to apply, however we will have to prioritize those with tickets first. Let us know as soon as your ticket is confirmed or denied.

  • We have very limited funding to support the travel and accommodations of Localization Lab Summit and Sprint participants. If you are in need of financial support, please provide clear details in the application. We will let individuals know if we can support them by the 1st of March.

  • Accepted applicants are expected to attend both the Localization Summit (all day, March 31st) and the Localization Sprint (TBD*). Please make sure you are able attend both events before you apply. *Once we determine the Sprint date and time, please let us know if it conflicts with a session you are hosting.

The deadline for submissions is THURSDAY, JANUARY 31ST

Contact Erin with any and all questions!

OONI Probe Office Hour


OONI Probe is launching a new and improved OONI Probe mobile application with an updated design and UI as well as new features. This means that we need the help of volunteers to ensure the new application is translated and reviewed into key languages! 

To help support translators working on the application updates, the OONI Probe team will be holding an "Office Hour" to answer all of your OONI Probe questions this week!

WHEN: Thursday December 13th at 13:00 UTC
WHERE: Localization Lab Mattermost Channel (Not a member? Contact us to join)

What is OONI Probe? OONI Probe is free and open source software that allows individual users to test for network interference. OONI tests look for:

  • Blocking of websites

  • Blocking of instant messaging apps

  • Blocking of Tor and other circumvention tools

  • Detection of systems that could be responsible for censorship and/or surveillance

We need your help to translate & review OONI Probe!
Priority languages are: 
Russian, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese (Brazil), Arabic, Italian, Persian, Chinese (Simplified), Turkish

Join the OONI Probe Translation Team!
Review the OONI Probe Translation Guidelines
Download and test the OONI Probe beta

Why Localizing Tech Matters

By Chido Musodza

Localization Sprint with  Jaqi Aru  and the Aymara language team in El Alto, Bolivia.

Localization Sprint with Jaqi Aru and the Aymara language team in El Alto, Bolivia.

From WhatsApp to Instagram, the evolution of technology has brought about some pretty interesting innovations. However, the ever-changing nature of tech has also resulted in what has been termed “the digital divide”.

In low-income countries like mine, privatized mobile network operators and Internet Service Providers are the main drivers of internet access in the country. Because of the high cost of living and huge start-up costs when setting up infrastructure, internet access in Zimbabwe is generally pricier than the regional average — leading to major roadblocks in digital innovation. While efforts have been made to lobby the government and promote infrastructure sharing in order to reduce the cost of access in Zimbabwe, the process has proven to be long and drawn out. A feasible infrastructure sharing plan which would see the players who have more resources agreeing to bring down costs seems far away.

But really, even if access were cheaper, would it actually address the digital divide? Maybe not. Perhaps, part of the solution lies with volunteer translators and the work they do to localize circumvention tools in the tech space.

As someone who comes from a part of the world known in some quarters as “The Global South”, my mother tongue, Shona, is considered a minority language. For this reason, it usually isn’t very high on the “food chain” when it comes time to chose which languages are made available online. In Zimbabwe, economic challenges have meant family members have moved away to different continents altogether. Thankfully the advent of technology has made communication with families easier, but it has also meant that most communication is now mostly through writing (think instant messengers, social media, email etc…). For people whose native language is something other than English (or another “majority” language), an extra effort has to be made to interact with applications — something that in itself presents a barrier to many. Countries, such as mine, have not developed new words for a while now and this means that localized terms for WiFi, encryption, and interface (among other tech terms) are virtually non-existent in our languages. 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.

Localization Sprint with Swahili language contributors. Photo by  Zaituni Njovu .

Localization Sprint with Swahili language contributors. Photo by Zaituni Njovu.

The work of Localization Lab is an opportunity to create access to information in local languages for communities that need that information the most. Though Localization Lab’s core mission is the translation of apps for circumvention tech, the space is an opportunity for volunteer translators like me to make a difference by ensuring that in an ever-changing world that continues to be geared towards tech my language survives, continues to evolve and does not disappear completely. Annual and country-specific collaborative translation events — or Localization Sprints — are the building blocks that have helped shape the way I look at how information on the internet is accessed and consumed by citizens in my home country. The Sprints have also enabled me to see that the challenges with language, context, and attempts to bridge the digital divide are not in vain.

The work done here enables information security, digital literacy, and anyone working in the internet activism space to work towards equipping local communities with digital literacy skills in a language that is familiar and has relatable context. As an information security trainer, this aspect is especially important in countries such as mine, given that we as trainers sometimes find ourselves in rooms full of people who have little to no knowledge of very basic Internet concepts and basic personal digital security techniques. With each training that I have had to adapt, change and play around with to suit the group, I am left with a deeper impression that we as trainers need to have applications and information in our mother tongue. This can only happen if there are people working to translate the information and the applications.

Through Localization Lab, the much bigger conversations around language development are beginning to take shape and that, in my teapot shaped country, is the start of the journey of 1,000 miles.

So I leave you with this thought of mine:

The translations are a starting point. A starting point to ensure my mother tongue stays relevant, a starting point to bridge the digital divide caused by language and context, and indeed the starting point to unlock the potential of my fellow countrymen and women. Indeed all this starts with volunteering to translate applications”.

Contributor Spotlight: "What is a human being without freedom?"

Contributor Spotlight.jpg

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. If you have used Psiphon in Arabic, browsed the Tor Support Portal in Indonesian, downloaded Signal in Khmer, or accessed OONI probe in Greek, it is all thanks to community members who are dedicated to making Internet freedom technology accessible in different languages.

The Contributor Spotlight is a way to highlight some of the community members who are unlocking access to digital security technology. For this post, we want to show our gratitude to the contributor AO. We spoke with AO about his work as French language coordinator, the importance of quality localization, and what drives him to localize Internet freedom technology.

How did you first hear about and get involved with the Localization Lab?

After three decades of working for various employers, a couple years ago I was ready to give to the community through volunteer work. I was using various open source software on Ubuntu and I thought the translations could be better. The proliferation of mobile apps came with, what I considered to be, the spread of bad translations. I knew nothing about crowd-sourced localization at the time, but soon discovered a global volunteer force translating apps, websites, operating systems and the like. I started with Ubuntu and with some open source applications I was using on a regular basis. I liked the challenge, and I liked seeing the result of my translations going into production.

One of the apps I wanted to work on was translated on Transifex, and I discovered a host of other projects I could dedicate myself to. I was interested in digital security, so I quickly came across projects hosted by the Localization Lab on Transifex. I fully dedicated myself to the task, first translating, then reviewing and coordinating language teams. I guess the amount of work I was putting into the Localization Lab’s managed projects drew the executive director’s attention. She contacted me and asked if I was interested in attending the Internet Freedom Festival in 2015. I accepted the invitation and the rest is history. I have been coordinating the French language translations of all Localization Lab’s projects ever since.

What has motivated you to take such an active role in the Localization Lab community?

I have a lot of experience in management and information technology. So for me, quality is paramount and I see localization as any other part of software or content delivery -- it has to be good quality before it goes to the users. Crowd-sourced translations can come with issues related to quality. I knew it would be a long never-ending task, but I decided to tackle it. Furthermore, with its clear translation guidelines and reviewing process structure, devoting my time to the Localization Lab was and still is a sound manner to approach the problem. I know that the quality translations offered by the Localization Lab reach millions of users and set a standard as far as crowd-sourced localization goes. Not many open source projects have the means to hire professional translators -- the Localization Lab is the next best thing.

What are some of the challenges you face when localizing tools into French?

French is one of the languages where technical terminology exists natively. As with many other languages, the use of English terminology spreads in French when there is really no reason for it. For me, one of the challenges is to make sure proper terminology is being used. I work with certified terminologists on a regular basis and many people like me who strive to offer quality French terminology no matter what their field of expertise may be. So yes, it's about offering products that French speakers will understand but it's also about education in a way. I can see French terms used by the Localization Lab being used more and more in translations that have nothing to do with us and I think we contribute to that.

What drives you to localize Internet freedom tools?

The Internet reaches almost everywhere and is one of the major achievements of the human race. It has changed the way we communicate and interact with others. What is a human being without freedom? Internet Freedom tools and digital security apps help to give back freedom in oppressed countries, but more generally they help everyone to protect their freedom of speech, and the privacy of their data. The vast majority of people do not read or understand English. The Localization Lab language teams give people access to these tools in their native languages and help spread freedom on the Internet and in the digital age.

Contributor Insights Into Cambodia

By Andrea Brás

“Contributor Insights…” is a series of interviews leveraging the experience of Localization Lab contributors in order to provide more insight into the needs, threats, and challenges faced by users living and working in different parts of the world.

In July, Cambodians took to the polls in an election that favored incumbent Prime Minister Hu Sen. The lead up to the general election saw further crackdowns on the CNRP opposition party, civil society organizations, independent press outlets and multiple international NGOs. Recently, Hu Sen’s government announced a new directive against “fake news” which would require websites to register with the country’s information ministry, leading to jail time and fines for users who are found guilty of spreading fake information. This latest move is leading to fears that heightened state surveillance will mean more attacks on freedom of expression.

Localization Lab interviewed Khmer-speaking community members who shared insights into the need for digital security tools that fit the Cambodian context and what developers can do to make their tools more accessible.

How concerned are everyday people about what the current political situation means for their overall freedoms?

It varies a lot. Many people know that the situation is serious but they are afraid to stand up to it, and other people simply don’t care. The older generations have lived through the instability of the past and they are scared about what could happen in the country if more instability arises. The younger generation seems split down the middle: Some are more concerned with their everyday lives than with the human rights situation while others are working to change what is happening.

How common is it for everyday people to be concerned about digital security?

Many Cambodians are not very knowledgeable about the digital world, so it is still not very common for everyday people to think about digital security. In general, the concept of digital security is quite new. People are more familiar with the term ICT, so it is easier for people to understand if “digital security” projects are described as “ICT” projects.

However, more and more people are seeing news articles covering phone tapping, website hacking, Facebook accounts compromised, and recently the PM said “Only 8 Minutes to Locate Cyber Insult on Facebook”.

If they do have digital security and censorship concerns, who are they threat modelling against?

Some people might threat model against hackers or some typical online money scams, but the majority are threat modelling against local authorities and the government. The government announced the creation of a “Cyber War Team” a number of years ago which was tasked with monitoring online activity that caused so-called “instability”. Also, with the support of the Chinese government, they are going to install CCTV cameras all over the capital which is supposed to monitor traffic violations, but some people are not so sure if that is the real reason behind its use.

What are the most common methods that people use to protect their privacy and security online? Are there any non-technical methods being employed (i.e. self-censorship)?

For people who have more awareness of digital security techniques, they try to only use secure tools that can protect their data and also have some personal rules for themselves like always turn off the location on their phones, use strong passwords, never click on suspicious links etc… Sometimes, they stay offline and meet face-to-face.

People have also learned to self-censor. Even if you are not personally scared and decide not to self-censor, your family and friends might pressure you to self-censor because they are scared for you.

What digital security and circumvention tools are most likely to be adopted by Cambodian users and why do you think they are more likely to be adopted?

Tools that are very user friendly are much more likely to be adopted, especially tools that work for people who don’t know how to read or write well in Khmer — so tools that use a lot of icons/symbols and Khmer words that are easy to understand. Something that is similar to Facebook (in terms of ease of use) would work well in the Cambodian context. Cambodian users are very familiar with Facebook and Facebook messenger, it is something they use daily. They are comfortable with the interface. If there were a tool that was similar to Facebook, but secure, open source and didn’t ask for personal info when users joined — Cambodians would use it.

However, no matter what is introduced, if there is no training about new tools, people won’t even know they exist. For example, Signal is not popular at the moment and many people prefer to use popular communication tools. What is the point of using Signal when your friends are staying on different channels?

What are some of the biggest obstacles for adoption of these methods on a wider scale?

There are many obstacles to the adoption of these tools in a Cambodian context. First of all, language is a big problem. 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.

Another issue concerns people who can’t read or write. There is still a sector of the population with high rates of illiteracy, so it is difficult for people to use digital security tools and be safe when they can’t understand the interface. Simply put — if people can’t read, they really can’t use the tools securely.

The terminology used in the tools can also be a pain because it often doesn’t make sense when translated into Khmer. The tools really need to be localized not just translated directly.

The last issue concerns overall adoption. Many people see digital security as something that is only for activists or for frontline defenders. They don’t understand that digital security is important for everyone. There needs to be better messaging so people understand that digital security threats can affect anyone.

What can developers do to make these tools more accessible for people who can’t read or write?

Developers should create interfaces that are less complex with a lot of easy to understand visuals. Perhaps voice narration functions which are available in local languages could be useful for certain tools. Quick start pop-up screens with animations might be helpful for first time users.

In your estimate, what sector of the population is currently benefiting from the use of these tools? How can developers reach the other people in need?

At this moment, I think that only people who are activists or human rights defenders are benefiting from the use of these tools. Perhaps a small number of people who have direct contact with those human rights defenders (like their immediate family) are benefiting as well.

There is a need to really identify the people at risk, provide more training, practice and encouragement to use the tools. This sounds simple, but it is hard to do.

Developers can reach more people by making these tools easier to use, localizing them more and, if possible, working closer with the people who deal directly with users. For a small country like Cambodia, it is very hard to get in touch with developers and, the truth is, we need these tools the most.