US funding software allowing Russians to evade censors

A US-backed campaign is giving Russians access to anti-censorship software to dodge Moscow’s crackdown on dissent against its invasion of Ukraine, groups involved have told AFP.

Russia has stepped up restrictions on independent media since its neighbor’s attack in February, with journalists facing prosecution for criticizing the invasion or even calling it a war.

The US government-backed Open Technology Fund is giving money to a handful of US companies providing free virtual private networks (VPNs) to millions of Russians, who can then use them to visit blocked websites by the censors.

Traditional VPN software creates what is effectively a private tunnel over the internet for data, usually encrypted, to flow away from eavesdropping – and its use has exploded in Russia since the invasion.

“Our tool is primarily used by people trying to access independent media, so OTF funding was absolutely essential,” said a spokesperson for Lantern, one of the companies involved.

Tech companies Psiphon and nthLink have also provided sophisticated anti-censorship apps to people in Russia, with the OTF estimating that some 4 million users in Russia have received VPNs from the companies.

Psiphon has seen a massive increase in Russian users, from around 48,000 a day before the Feb. 24 invasion to more than a million a day by mid-March, a senior adviser at Psiphon said. the company, Dirk Rodenburg.

The company’s Russian-language tools now average almost 1.5 million users a day, he added.

While some, like Ukraine’s leaders, called for Russia to be cut off from the internet, others noted that access was essential for opposition groups.

“It’s very important for Russians to be connected to the whole web, to keep the resistance going,” said Natalia Krapiva, a technology legal adviser at rights group Access Now, which is not involved in the campaign. OTF’s effort.

“All kinds of initiatives are going on and to keep them alive you need the internet because you can’t gather in person or because activists are scattered around the world,” she added.

Keeping VPNs operational and accessible was relatively simple at the start of the war, said Lucas, the spokesman for Lantern, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used.

“They weren’t ready to block anything,” Lucas said. “Over time, Russia has learned to block the easy stuff, but Lantern and Psiphon are still operational.”

China Lesson, Myanmar

Censors try to cut VPN software from the servers it relies on to run or block people from accessing websites where the tools can be downloaded.

As a result, internet freedom crackdowns usually result in people sharing VPNs through guerrilla tactics such as word of mouth.

However, groups like Lantern have embraced methods such as hiding VPN installers in online platforms too vital for the government to block, and building a network so users can share the technology with others, he said. Lucas.

“Lantern and Psiphon are different in that we do all kinds of much more sophisticated things to hide our traffic and bypass detection from our servers,” he said.

Russians are taking advantage of VPN makers perfecting their tools while battling censorship in countries like China and Myanmar.

“About two years ago there was a time when China really upped their game, in terms of the lengths they were going to block,” Lucas said.

“We have raised the level of our game a lot,” he added.

US government funding provided through the OTF has been important to operations since costs soared and revenue vanished for VPN makers in Russia as sanctions kicked in and companies pulled out of the country.

The OTF said it typically spends $3-4 million per year funding VPNs, but that figure has been increased due to censorship in Russia.

Psiphon has received funding from the US government for more than 14 years, with the money usually going to improve tools to counter new tactics used by authoritarian regimes, the company told AFP.

Despite efforts to make VPN technology available to those who want it, many people still do not have access to it.

“The use of virtual private networks and other methods has increased significantly in Russia, but it still only represents a small percentage of the population,” Krapiva, from Access Now, told AFP.

Comments are closed.