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Project Shield: Defend against digital censorship

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Protecting websites from digital attacks

This lesson has been adapted from Google NewsLab and is reproduced with permission.

Every day, independent news sites around the world are taken offline and effectively silenced by digital attacks.

During controversial events such as elections, civil unrest or conflict, the threat level increases even more. Following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, an unprecedented surge in Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks targeted as many as 19,000 French websites. And in 2016, seven Swedish news sites were simultaneously attacked and taken offline in what appeared to be a coordinated effort to block access to critical information.

African telecommunications providers are also seeing a huge rise in the number of attacks.

Project Shield is a free tool that uses Google’s technology to protect news publishers from this growing daily threat.

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • What a DDoS attack is and how they affect news publishers
  • How Project Shield can protect your site and how to apply for it

What is a “DDoS” attack?

A DDoS attack occurs when someone exploits thousands or even millions of computers and tricks them into visiting a specific website at the same time. The resulting flood of “junk” traffic often overwhelms servers and crashes the website, taking it offline. The damage doesn’t stop there. Attempting to fight off or recover from a DDoS attack can be devastatingly expensive and time-consuming.

To make matters worse, DDoS is no longer the exclusive purview of elite computer hackers; nearly anyone with an internet connection can launch one for as little as $5 (US). Today, even an average-size attack can take most sites offline.

Today, criminals are making use of the millions of computers that live inside gadgets such as internet-connected video cameras, digital video recorders and even home routers to launch DDoS attacks on an unprecedented scale. The gadgets are often left unprotected by their owners, and were used to launch the largest DDoS seen to date, in which traffic peaked at more than a terabit of data per second.

To better understand DDoS attacks, watch this video.

A growing threat to news publishers

DDoS attacks are growing increasingly common. According to Arbor Networks, the first half of 2016 showed a 125% annual increase in attacks, with almost 125,000 occurring every week. According to Neustar, the odds of getting hit are one in two, with repeat attacks as common as 80%. And no one is immune: even some of the world’s largest publishers have been taken down by DDoS.

Triggering a DDoS attack is relatively cheap and easy for attackers, with automated attacks costing as little as $20 per hour and purchased anonymously online.

To see where DDoS attacks are happening right now, check out Digital Attack Map, a live data visualisation that surfaces anonymous attack traffic data so you can explore historic trends and find reports of outages happening on any given day.

Project Shield protects your site for free

These alarming statistics point to the need for robust DDoS protection — which can be prohibitively complicated and expensive. Project Shield is a free tool that leverages Google infrastructure to protect news publishers, no matter how many attacks they experience.

Project Shield is a “reverse proxy” that uses Google’s own defences and network capacity to protect news sites. This provides a “shield” against would-be attackers by filtering out malicious traffic. It also caches some site elements to lighten the load on your own servers, which can improve site performance and reduce your bandwidth costs.

Who can apply for Project Shield?

There are three categories of sites eligible for inclusion under Project Shield:

  • News You regularly publish timely content with attribution to keep readers informed on important information.
  • Human rights Nonprofits dedicated to one of the UN charters of human rights.
  • Elections Information on polling locations, vote monitoring, and election results.  You can review Google’s content and quality guidelines to see whether your site is likely to qualify.

Citizen journalism sites may apply but will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

How to apply for Project Shield

  1. Go to g.co/shield
  2. Click “Get Started”
  3. Fill in form

Once your site is approved, you’ll receive instructions on how to route your traffic through Project Shield. This simple setup process takes just a few minutes, and then you’ll be protected from DDoS attacks.