Senior Lecturer in Computing & Communications Engineering Dr Mahdi Aiash describes what Internet shutdowns ordered by repressive regimes entail, and how they can be bypassed
A report recently published by the UN Human Rights Office highlights the fact that Internet shutdown is increasingly becoming a tool used by governments around the world in the time of crisis to supress protest and hide deadly crackdowns or even military operations against civilians. Most recently, Iranian authorities cut off mobile Internet, WhatsApp, and Instagram amid protests against the killing of Mahsa Amini.
What are Internet Shutdowns and how they happen?
Internet shutdowns are measures taken by governments or entities on behalf of these governments, to intentionally disrupt access to and the use of information and communications systems online. Internet shutdowns exist on a spectrum and include everything from complete blackouts (where online connectivity is fully severed) or disruptions of mobile service to throttling or slowing down connections to selectively blocking certain platforms. Some internet shutdowns last a few days or weeks, while others persist for months or even years.
To explain how this might happen, we need to know that the Internet (as a network) is made up of a number of Internet exchange points (IXPs) which are physical location through which Internet infrastructure companies such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) connect with each other.
These locations exist on the “edge” of different networks, and allow network providers to share transit outside their own network. Governments might order local internet service providers (ISPs) to fully disconnect online access for a particular geographic region or throughout a country. Unfortunately, ISPs may comply with government orders out of fear of retribution of legal action.
The good news is that if a government does not own and control the whole Internet Infrastructure, it might need to ask another party (IXP providers) to collaborate, which makes it a bit more challenging to have an entire Internet Blackout. Therefore, countries like China, Russia and Iran are also developing individual, “closed-off” internets, which would allow governments to cut off the country from the rest of the world wide web.
Can people bypass the shutdowns?
Depending on the scale of shutdown (and the country), there might be tools and ways to bypass the shutdowns:
Virtual private networks (VPNs): These allow users to access many blocked sites by providing internet service based outside of a censored country using a proxy server. A caveat is that because VPNs are publicly accessible, governments can block them.
Also worth mentioning is that encryption is not enabled by default in all VPN services, and even with encryption enabled, not all your Internet traffic will be encrypted. Domain Name System (DNS) traffic, translating domain names like google.com or mdx.ac.uk to Internet Protocal addresses so browsers can load Internet resources aren’t encrypted, meaning that Internet Service providers (and the government) know what websites you are visiting even if you are using VPN.
The good news is that there is a way to encrypt DNS traffic, by configuring the browser to use DNS over TLS (DOT) or DNS over HTTPs (DoH) protocols.
Another concern related to the use of VPN is the element of trust, since VPN services keep your data.
A good alternative to VPN is serverless tunnels such as Ngrok-tunnel, which is an open source tool that does not tunnel traffic or rely upon third-party servers, meaning governments have a much harder time blocking them.
Deep Packet Inspection circumvention utilities such as GoodbyeDPI or Green Tunnel might be another option to bypass Deep Packet Inspection systems found in many Internet Service Providers which block access to certain websites.
Why this is important?
KeepItOn coalition, which monitors shutdown episodes across the world, documented 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 in 74 countries, with some countries blocking communications repeatedly and over long periods of time. Not only do Internet shutdowns represent violations to human rights and freedom, they also inflict social and economic damage on citizens and limit their abilities to access much-needed services such as hospitals, educational institutions and public transport, which in turn deepens inequality.
Research Fellow Roger Kline reviews a paper on the impact of joint-evaluation methods in NHS recruitment
In a discussion with a group of NHS staff recently I was asked what their Trust might do to speed up progress on race equality in recruitment and career progression. I shared some of the evidence on removing bias from processes and inserting accountability, and in passing suggested that if the Trust wanted to be adventurous it could remove the future line manager from the final appointment decision in order to reduce affinity bias as there was some evidence this could be effective.
They laughed and said. “Ah, that is just what happened by accident here when the line manager was off sick. The interviews went ahead and we got a much more diverse set of appointments”.
A fascinating short paper by Sheila Cunliffe and Catherine Wilkinssuggesting this approach might be more widely effective has just been published. I recommend you read the original paper but with the authors’ permission I summarise it here and suggest why they may have found what they did.
The case study
A high profile NHS Trust identified a number of issues with their existing process for recruiting Band 5 nurses and midwives. 63% of applicants were invited to interview and 12% of those received an unconditional offer. The Trust found:
Some managers were taking too long to shortlist leading to high non-attendance at interview and too long to return appointment paperwork after interview
Managers wanted the ‘perfect’ candidate and were unwilling to take someone who needed development.
Candidates applied for multiple roles and, if invited to interview for several of these, only attended interviews for one.
There was substantial attrition of candidates after unconditional offer which meant the number of applicants finally onboarded was below 10% of applicants.
The Trust wanted to know why only 12.3% of candidates reached Unconditional Offer stage. A deep dive into 32 past recruitment campaigns was undertaken by the Nursing Workforce team doing an exercise in which candidates who had applied for these roles were shortlisted for both –
Suitability for the particular role advertised, and
Suitability for a Registered Nurse (RN) role somewhere in the Trust.
The data produced from this exercise was then compared with the data from the original recruitment exercise. The outcome was quite extraordinary. 89.1% of applicants were assessed as suitable for a RN role somewhere in the Trust, but in the original recruitment many were being rejected at shortlisting stage as they were not considered suitable for the specific role applied for. In addition, others were not considered to be in the top 4-6 candidates for that role and rejected in order to have a ‘manageable’ shortlist. This was then followed by candidates who were unsuccessful for the role on offer being rejected after interview with no attempt to offer them a role elsewhere in the Trust. The cumulative effect was that only 12.3% of candidates reached Unconditional Offer stage.
This exercise led to substantial changes in recruitment processes in Adult Nursing including:
Reviewing the ‘Killer Questions’ criteria in the recruitment system to ensure only candidates who were professionally qualified and registered (or about to be) could apply
Stopping shortlisting. Instead all applicants were automatically invited to book into a generic Assessment Centre at a date suitable for them (the centres were run on a 3-weekly basis)
The Assessment Centres were established on the principle of ‘wrapping our arms around the candidate’, ie with a focus on a more positive candidate experience and giving information about the Trust as a whole, including discussion of potential future career progression
Applicants attending the Assessment Centre were given a generic interview and Situational Judgement Test. The interviews were conducted by panels who were assessing suitability for a RN role in the Trust as a whole and not for a specific post. All candidates were assessed against a common standard. This future line manager was not always on the panel and even if they were, they were assessing for generic roles rather than simply for ones they would be managing in future
A Values and Behaviours 10-minute online test developed with a Psychometric company which reported against the Trust Values and Behaviours framework was also trialled, but this was stopped as a result of insufficient HR resource being available for analysis and evaluation
Individual clinical teams had ‘stalls’ at the Assessment day, enabling candidates to speak with specialists and find out more about their work and then have the opportunity to state their preference for specific areas they wished to work in and/or discuss the areas they were interested in from a career progression perspective
Successful candidates were then placed according to the Assessment Centre results and their preferences where possible
A more flexible approach was taken with candidates – eg if a candidate wished to work in a particular specialism but wasn’t considered ready, they could be offered a role which would give them that additional experience in a 6-to-12-month period
Many candidates received an offer on the day of the Assessment Centre.
The Trust gained an immediate benefit which addressed the original rationale for the exercise. The volumes of applicants recruited improved substantially with 30.3% of all applicants now getting through to unconditional offer compared with 12.3% before these changes were made.
However, when the team designing these changes then reviewed the success rate of applicants of different ethnicities for Band 5 and 6 posts (as part of a separate investigation into bias in recruitment) they discovered something quite astonishing.
They found that whilst the differences by ethnicity in the likelihood of applicants who applied being shortlisted were significant but small, at interview stage the outcomes were very different.
Fig 1 shows the difference between the interview success rates overall, and by ethnicity, before and after the process changes were introduced.
Fig 1. Success rates of different recruitment processes by ethnicity
% Success Rate from Application when interviewed for specific Trust job (12 months)
% Success Rate from Application when interviewed for an RN role somewhere in Trust (6 months)
Ratio of White Offers to BAME Offers
The changes recorded in interview outcomes are striking, resulting in the proportions of ethnic minority applicants getting unconditional offers being much closer to the proportion of white candidates at each stage.
Why might the outcomes change with a change of process? There are a number of possible reasons.
One explanation is Bohnet’s insight that joint-evaluation of candidates succeeds in helping employers choose, irrespective of an employee’s gender and the implicit stereotypes the employer may hold. Bohnet found employers tasked to choose an employee for future performance were influenced by the candidate’s gender in separate evaluation. Bohnet’s findings have implications for organizations that want to decrease the likelihood that hiring, promotion, and job assignment decisions will be based on irrelevant criteria triggered by stereotypes. In contrast, in joint-evaluation, gender was found to be irrelevant – employers were significantly more likely to choose the higher rather than the lower performing employee.
They concluded that research in behavioural decision-making suggests that employers may decide differently in joint than in separate evaluation because they switch from a more intuitive evaluation mode based on heuristics in separate evaluation to a more reasoned mode when comparing alternatives in joint-evaluation. In addition, joint-evaluation might also affect choices by providing additional data that employers can use to update their stereotypical beliefs about a group to which an employee belongs. By definition, an employer has more data points available in joint than in separate evaluation. Bohnet found that only about 8 percent of the employers engaging in joint-evaluation, as compared to about 51 percent of the employers engaging in separate evaluation, chose the underperforming employee. It seems quite possible that the same principle might apply to the influence of ethnicity on decision making.
This is one possible explanation for some of the difference the change of process made, though without additional information it is not possible to say how significant this change might have been.
A second possible explanation is suggested by research on whether having more than one candidate who is female or is from an ethnic minority affects their likelihood of being appointed from interview. Johnson and colleagues suggested it makes a very considerable difference. Pooling results from three studies they found that when there was only one woman or minority candidate in a pool of four finalists, their odds of being hired were statistically zero.
However when they created a new status quo among the finalist candidates adding just one more woman or minority candidate, the decision makers did consider hiring a woman or minority candidate. The difference that increasing the number of female or minority candidates made was remarkably large. Why does being the only woman (or ethnic minority person) in a pool of finalists matter? The researchers suggest this is because it highlights how different they are from the norm “and deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.”
Clearly in batch recruitment of the sort in the Trust studied, half[SC1] of those shortlisted prior to the change of process were White applicants, so it is possible this was a factor, although it is unlikely to be the main one since substantial numbers of individual shortlists would have had two or more BME candidates (Harvard Business Review).
The third possible explanation, and probably the most significant one, is that the removal of the line manager from the decision making process for specific roles they would manage in future made a difference. Using an assessment centre in which the future line manager was not always present, and even if a manager with a vacancy was present they were they were not necessarily interviewing ‘their candidates’, is likely to have substantially reduced affinity bias. In No more tick boxes I summarised some of the powerful evidence that affinity bias is an important factor in creating biased recruitment and career progression decision. There is evidence that the absence of the future line manager can help to prevent some of that bias. Google follow that approach even though “Managers hate the idea that they can’t hire their own people. Interviewers can’t stand being told that they have to follow a certain format for the interview or for their feedback.” (Wired)
It is likely that a combination of a very structured process, without the future line manager’s decision being key, possibly assisted by either or both the impact of joint evaluation and more diverse shortlists, helped make the remarkable difference, Cunliffe and Wilkins found.
Either way, there appear to be important lessons for other NHS employers where batch recruitment is possible since, when implemented properly, it may make a very significant contribution to diversity as well as the overall effectiveness of recruitment.
The authors would be really interested in other examples of batch recruitment and the use of assessment centres for such recruitment at firstname.lastname@example.org, and so would I.
Roger Kline is Research Fellow, Middlesex University Business School
If you found this interesting, you might want to read Roger’s blog about No more tick boxes, his extended review of “what works” and what doesn’t in creating fair recruitment and career progression
David Williams is the Director of Global Corporate Engagement at Middlesex University. At the close of National Apprenticeship Week 2018, he reflects on the recent developments within the world of apprenticeships, and identifies areas of best practice which can benefit both learners and businesses.
It’s now almost a year since large employers started paying the Apprenticeship Levy. As we celebrate the successful apprentice programmes during National Apprenticeship Week (#NAW2018), the 5% Club recently published research that reveals the majority of parents want more alternatives to university for their children such as apprenticeships, with 80% stating there are not enough options. 77% agree that apprenticeships are given a much lower profile in society than university education. Only 20% of parents felt they had enough knowledge to advise on apprenticeships while 54% felt schools did not provide enough information.
This is difficult for a Government committed to addressing the skills gap and whose ambitions are a significant driver for the development of apprenticeships at all levels for the post-Brexit UK. The Government has pledged to create three million new apprenticeships in England by the end of the current parliament, including the new innovation on the block, the higher education-level Degree Apprenticeships. However, after nearly a year of Levy payments, numbers overall have fallen and some apprenticeship schemes have come under fire for not providing businesses or employees with the skills needed to succeed.
But there are a large number of well-organised, first-rate apprenticeships being run by businesses and there is a great deal of innovation that promises well for the future. These are at all levels, from the traditional Levels 2 and 3 to Degree and Postgraduate Apprenticeships at Level 7. The debate at the highest level is more around the title than the impact; senior employees may prefer an MBA or professional qualification than being ‘badged’ as an apprenticeship.
One of the biggest challenges employers are facing is how to strategically include their Levy payments into meeting the needs of their business through robust Workforce Development planning to maximise their return. Additionally, the requirement that all Levy-qualifying training requires the employee to be released for off-the-job training across 20 per cent of their time is a barrier and a change from the historical delivery models. Most organisations that we have spoken to are trying to find ways to embrace the current situation and plan long-term to ensure organisational impact. This approach tends to lead to the upskilling of existing staff rather than recruiting new staff.
We would call the Government, along with the Institute for Apprenticeships, to make some subtle changes and give employers more ownership and control, letting them decide what percentage of off-the-job training best suits their needs on a sector-by-sector basis but particularly with the input of the Higher Education institutions. At the moment, the constraints are hindering staff development, and so, organisational productivity and the return on investment.
Employers working with professional bodies have formed Trailblazer groups to develop nationally recognised apprenticeship standards – succinct documents that define the knowledge, skills and behaviours for occupations and related high-level assessments.
Degree Apprenticeships at Middlesex
Middlesex University has a proud track record in higher level work-based learning and Higher Apprenticeships. We believe we offer the very best practice as our qualifications are designed to meet employer needs and are delivered flexibly in the workplace; these programmes are suitable for a company’s existing employees or for new apprentices. All assessment is around the workplace role, tailored to maximise the impact on the organisation and on an individual’s performance at work. Degree Apprenticeships are currently offered in management, leadership, construction and B2B sales, and there are others in development across public sector occupations.
There are many benefits to an employer undertaking an apprentice programme outside of utilising their Levy payment. Younger apprentices can offer new and skilled workers for the future and be developed to fully appreciate the culture of the organisation; and by upskilling staff through an apprenticeship programme, they may grow in loyalty and help increase retention rates. The new thinking and skills of staff can re-energise a company, offering new insights and innovation that can be applied to everyday work and responsibilities. This is the real legacy.
The time to act is now: talk to your preferred training provider and ask how they can support your workforce development and help promote best practices – I have no doubt you will pleased with the options available.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog since it began in 2015. We couldn’t have come this far without your expertise and support.
The UK Blog Awards 2018 winners will be announced on 20 April. We’re keeping our fingers crossed, but whatever the result, it’s a great achievement and we’ll keep working to make MDX Minds even better this year.