Celebrating 10 years of Project Galileo


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One of the great benefits of the Internet has been its ability to empower activists and journalists in repressive societies to organize, communicate, and simply find each other. Ten years ago today, Cloudflare launched Project Galileo, a program which today provides security services, at no cost, to more than 2,600 independent journalists and nonprofit organizations around the world supporting human rights, democracy, and local communities. You can read last week’s blog and Radar dashboard that provide a snapshot of what public interest organizations experience on a daily basis when it comes to keeping their websites online.

Origins of Project Galileo

We’ve admitted before that Project Galileo was born out of a mistake, but it's worth reminding ourselves. In 2014, when Cloudflare was a much smaller company with a smaller network, our free service did not include DDoS mitigation. If a free customer came under a withering attack, we would stop proxying traffic to protect our own network. It just made sense.

One evening, a site that was using us came under a significant DDoS attack, exhausting Cloudflare resources. After pulling up the site and seeing Cyrillic writing and pictures of men with guns, the young engineer on call followed the playbook. He pushed a button and sent all the attack traffic to the site’s origin, effectively kicking it off the Internet.

This was in 2014, during Russia’s first invasion into Ukraine, when Russia invaded Crimea. What the engineer did not know was that he had just kicked off an independent Ukrainian newspaper that was covering the attack and the invasions. The newspaper had tried to pay for services with a credit card but failed because Russia had targeted Ukraine’s financial infrastructure, taking banking institutions offline. It wasn’t the engineer’s fault. He had no reason to know that the site was important, and no alternative playbook to follow.

After that incident, we vowed to never let an organization that was serving such an important purpose go offline simply because they couldn’t pay for services. And so the idea for Project Galileo was born.

Although the idea of providing free security services was straightforward, figuring out which organizations are important enough to deserve such services was not. We know we can’t build a better Internet alone – it’s why Cloudflare’s mission is to help build a better Internet. So with Project Galileo, we sought the assistance of a group of civil society organizations to partner with us and help identify the organizations that need our protection.

Repression of ideas that were threatening to authority hardly started with DDoS attacks or the invention of the Internet. We named the effort Project Galileo after the story of Galileo Galilei. Galileo was persecuted in the 1600s for publishing a book concluding that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, but that the Earth orbits the sun. After Galileo was labeled a heretic, his book was banned and his ideas were suppressed for more than 100 years.

Four hundred years after Galileo, we see attempts to suppress the online voices of journalists and human rights workers who might challenge the status quo. We’re proud of the fact that through Project Galileo, we keep so many of those voices online.

Growth of Project Galileo

Ten years after the launch of Project Galileo, Cloudflare has changed a lot. Our network has grown from data centers in fewer than 30 cities in 2014 to a network that runs in 320 cities and more than 120 countries. We’ve massively expanded our product suite to include whole new lines of products, including a full set of Zero Trust services and a developer suite that enables developers to build a wide range of applications, including AI applications, on our network.

As Cloudflare has grown, so has Project Galileo. We have more than quadrupled the number of entities we protect in the last five years, from 600 at Project Galileo’s five-year anniversary to more than 2,600 today, located in 111 different countries. We’ve expanded from our original 14 civil society partners to 54 today. Our partners span countries, continents, and subject matter areas, sharing their expertise on organizations that would benefit from cybersecurity assistance.

When we expand our product offerings, we routinely ask whether new services would be valuable to the journalists, humanitarian groups, and nonprofits that benefit from Project Galileo. After Cloudflare launched our Zero Trust offering, we announced that we would offer those services for free to participants in Project Galileo to protect themselves against threats like data loss and malware. After Cloudflare acquired Area 1, we announced that we would offer Cloudflare’s email security products for free to the same participants.

We’ve tried to make our products easy for a small organization to use, building a Social Impact Portal and a Zero Trust roadmap for civil society and at-risk communities. Cloudflare’s teams also help participants onboard and troubleshoot when they face challenges.

What Project Galileo means for civil society groups now

On June 6, we celebrated Project Galileo’s 10-year anniversary with partners from government, civil society, and industry at an event in Washington, DC. We used the opportunity to talk about the future of the Internet, and how we can all work together to protect and advance the free and open Internet.

For humanitarian organizations with few resources, the types of services offered under Project Galileo can be life changing. At our Project Galileo event, we heard the story of a small French nonprofit that lost 17 years of data after being targeted by ransomware. Our resources help organizations defend themselves not only against nation states determined to take them offline, but also against common ransomware and phishing attacks.

During our event, the President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) told the story of traveling in the Western Balkans where the struggle for an independent media is palpable. NED is a strong supporter of media outlets across the region. But those media outlets come under frequent cyber attacks that have incapacitated their websites. As described by Damon Wilson:

Those attacks prevent news from reaching the public, where information is very much something that is used and weaponized against communities across Bosnia. And this was precisely the case with one of our partners, Buka. It's a news outlet that's based in Banja Luka and Republika Srpska. And while I was there, I met with some of our partners from Banja Luka who had been physically beaten up and intimidated. There's a crackdown on civil society, new restrictions and laws against them. But for Buka, it was a little bit of a different scenario because earlier this year they suffered a DDoS attack, during which their server servers were overwhelmed by up to 700 million page requests. And the sheer volume suggests the attackers had significant resources, making it a particularly severe threat.

But by onboarding Buka into Project Galileo, we were able to help them restore their site’s functionality, and now Buka’s website is equipped to withstand even the most sophisticated attacks, ensuring that their critical reporting continues uninterrupted, exactly at the time when the Republic gets Covid, Republika Srpska government is looking to close and restrict independent civic voices in that part of Bosnia.

And this is just one example. Last week, traveling in Bosnia, of the numerous NED partners who've benefited from Cloudflare's Project Galileo since NED became a partner in 2019, it's profound to the efficacy of our partners’ work. It effectively ensures that bad actors can't silence the voices and the work of democracy advocates and independent media around the world.

The importance of collaboration

Our work with Project Galileo highlights the power of the partnerships that we’ve built, not only with civil society, but with government and industry partners as well. By working together, we can expand protections for the many at-risk organizations that need cybersecurity assistance. Cybersecurity is a team sport.

In 2023, one of our Project Galileo partners, the CyberPeace Institute, approached us about doing even more to help protect nonprofit organizations against phishing attacks. The CyberPeace Institute collaborates with its partners to reduce the harms from cyberattacks on people’s lives worldwide and provide them assistance. CyberPeace also analyzes cyberattacks to expose their societal impact, to demonstrate how international laws and norms are being violated, and to advance responsible behavior in cyberspace.

CyberPeace realized that there was an opportunity to document attacks against civil society groups and improve the ecosystem for everyone. Many development and humanitarian organizations are small, with limited staff and little cybersecurity experience. They can easily fall prey to common cyber attacks – like phishing – designed to access their systems or steal their data. If they manage to use tools effectively to defend themselves, they do not typically report on the information about the attacks they see.  

CyberPeace proposed to help onboard development and humanitarian organizations to Cloudflare services through their CyberPeace Builders program and analyze the phishing campaigns targeting those organizations. The substantive insights and information gained from that work could then be fed to other civil society organizations as real time security alerts. Cloudflare worked with CyberPeace to develop the new approach, enabling their volunteers to onboard organizations in their network to Area 1 tools and their analysts to access threat indicators from the collective organizations onboarded.  

Government can play an important role in helping protect civil society from cyberattacks as well. Since the Summit for Democracy last year, Cloudflare has been working closely with the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC), which is run by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), on their High-Risk Communities initiative. Earlier this year, JCDC launched a web page outlining cybersecurity resources for civil society communities facing digital security threats because of their work. The effort includes tools and services that nonprofits can use to secure themselves online, including those offered under Project Galileo.

Expanding Cloudflare’s Impact

In many ways, the creation of Project Galileo altered the trajectory of the company. Project Galileo cemented the idea that protecting and keeping important organizations online, regardless of whether they could pay us, was part of Cloudflare’s DNA. It pushed us to innovate to improve security not only for the large enterprises that pay us, but for the small organizations doing good for the world that cannot afford to pay for the latest technological innovation. It gave us our mission – to help build a better Internet – and a standard to live up to and measure ourselves against.

To meet that standard, we routinely reach out to offer our services to important organizations in need. In 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cloudflare jumped in to offer services to Ukrainian critical infrastructure facing a barrage of cyberattacks and have continued providing them services ever since. At our Project Galileo event, the State Department’s Special Envoy and Coordinator for Digital Freedom read an email she’d received from Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister and Chief Digital Transformation officer of Ukraine the night before:

It is absolutely definite that Cloudflare services provide a vital layer of cybersecurity within the Ukrainian segment of cyberspace. Numerous DDoS attacks are directed at state electronic services, fintech, official information sources. So if there was no Cloudflare as a proven protection against DDoS attacks, it would have serious consequences causing chaos, especially when these attacks are synchronized by the enemy in parallel with kinetic attacks.

We’ve launched sections of Cloudflare Radar designed to use Cloudflare’s network to help civil society monitor Internet outages and disruptions, as well as route hijacks and other traffic anomalies. We’ve participated in the Freedom Online Coalition’s Task Force on Internet Shutdowns.

Project Galileo also helped pave the way for a variety of Cloudflare projects to provide other at-risk populations free services. These programs include:

  • Athenian Project: Launched in 2017, the Athenian Project is Cloudflare’s program to protect election-related domains for state and local governments so that citizens have reliable access to information on voter registration, polling places, and the reporting of election results.
  • Cloudflare for Campaigns: Launched in 2020, Cloudflare for Campaigns helps secure US political candidates’ election websites and internal data while also ensuring site reliability during peak traffic periods. The program is run in partnership with Defending Digital Campaigns.
  • Project Pangea: Launched in 2021, Project Pangea is a program to provide secure, performant and reliable access to the Internet for community networks that support underserved communities.
  • Project Safekeeping: Launched in 2022, Project Safekeeping supports at-risk critical infrastructure entities in Australia, Japan, Germany, Portugal, and the UK by providing Zero Trust and application security solutions.
  • Project Cybersafe Schools: Launched in 2023, Project Cybersafe Schools equips small public school districts in the US with Zero Trust services, including email protection and DNS filtering.
  • Project Secure Health: Launched on June 10, 2024, Project Secure Health provides security tools to Australia’s general practitioner clinics to safeguard patient data and counter challenges such as data breaches, ransomware attacks, phishing scams, and insider threats.

Looking forward

The world has only gotten more complicated since we first launched Project Galileo in 2014. We face real challenges ranging from malicious cyber actors targeting critical infrastructure, to election interference, to data theft. Governments have responded with increasingly aggressive attempts to control aspects of the Internet. At our recent celebration of Project Galileo, we lamented the thirteenth consecutive year of decline of global Internet freedom, as documented by our Project Galileo partner Freedom House.

But one thing has not changed. We continue to believe the single, global Internet is a miracle that we should all be fighting for. We sometimes forget that the Internet is an incredibly radical concept. The world somehow came together over the last 40 years, agreed on a set of standards, and then made it so that a collection of networks could all exchange data. And that miracle that is the Internet has brought incredible opportunities for the voices of civil society to be heard, to help extend their impact, to spread their message, and to keep them connected.

Connecting everyone online in a permissionless way comes with real harms and real risks. But we need to be surgical as we address those challenges. We need to partner to find solutions that preserve the open Internet, much as we do with projects like Project Galileo. Even if we are at a moment of democratic decline, continuing to defend the open, interoperable Internet preserves space and capacity for a future in which the Internet can also fuel greater freedom.

Project Galileo presents: Protecting Human Rights Defenders Online
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Matthew Prince|@eastdakota