How to Fight Internet Censorship with OONI

OONI is a tool you can use to test if you're being censored online

April 22nd, 2021

How to Fight Internet Censorship with OONI

Internet censorship sounds like a really dystopian idea but it's actually a very common occurrence even in western countries. There has been a long history of ISPs and the government banning and censoring content that infringes on copyright laws or is considered wrong-think in one way or the other. My country (Ireland) at one stage even had a country-wide block on anyone accessing Pirate Bay for years. There are many ways to get around internet censorship such as VPNs or TOR, but in this article I'm going to show you a very interesting way you can test and compare how censored (and how fast) your internet is to other people.

The internet at a glance

It's important to know how a typical internet request is made to understand how your online browsing can be censored or restricted in some way. When you type in a website domain (such as your computer first needs to find the IP address that the website is at. This is done using something called DNS which falls outside the scope of this article but you can learn about the protocol here. When your computer has the right domain a request is made. The request travels through your router at home all the way to the web server hosting the site and a request is sent back depending on other factors on the server side. Normally if the website is very large the request will be made to a content delivery network (CDN) instead which just separates the web traffic to different regions of the world among other things. There are multiple stages on this journey owned by various stakeholders (your internet service provider, cloud providers, the government etc...) and each point could have a potential middle-box or some other service designed to censor or restrict the request. It was at the DNS level that Pirate Bay was restricted in the example mentioned earlier. There are ways to either mask your traffic (such as using a VPN) or encrypting all traffic using TOR. It is recommended that you use both for different reasons but this doesn't really provide any insight into what sort of things you aren't being shown and by themselves they don't do anything to fight against the censorship in the first place.

How OONI works

OONI probe is a tool created by the Tor foundation that can be used to test both the censorship and the performance of your internet connection. After you run the tool on your computer or mobile it publishes the results in a public database that everyone can see. On the OONI website anyone can view the results of their country to compare their own results or gain a better insight into how restrictive the internet is as a whole. They also publish frequent reports so people can stay informed.

PLEASE NOTE that since this tool gathers some info from your network it is possible for your ISP and the government to find out that you used it. If you are in a country that heavily punishes some internet activity please be careful and use your best judgement.

There are a number of ways you can run the probe. The easiest is to download the app from f-droid or from the Play/Apple store which is good as you can compare your home internet against your mobile provider. You can see the results of my test in the picture below.

If you're on Mac or Linux you can also install the CLI tool which offers some other cool features. Simply run the below commands to install the package.


    #Install GPG key
    sudo apt-key adv --verbose --keyserver --recv-keys '8756C4F765C9AC3CB6B85D62379CE192D401AB61'

    #Add the repo
    echo "deb unstable main" | sudo tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/ooniprobe.list

    sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install ooniprobe-cli


    #Install with HomeBrew
    brew install ooniprobe

    #Setup automatic daily run
    ooniprobe autorun start

Final thoughts

The content we see and share online has a huge influence on how we see the world. Due to the invisible nature of Internet protocols it's incredibly easy for groups with enough influence to control what we can and can't see. By using tools such as OONI you not only gain a little bit of that control back but you can help highlight censorship in other countries that have much harsher government regulations.

Stay happy and stay private.