BOSTON (AFP) – Long before he launched a war on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin was working to make Russia’s internet a powerful tool for surveillance and social control modeled on China’s so-called Great Firewall.
So when Western tech companies started cutting ties with Russia after its invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov got upset. He has spent years exposing Russian censorship and fears that well-intentioned efforts to help Ukraine will instead help Putin isolate Russians from the free flow of information, aiding in the Kremlin’s propaganda war.
“Look, guys the only space the Russians have to talk about is Ukraine. And what is happening in Russia. Soldatov, now exiled in London. I wrote on Facebook in the first week of the war. “You can’t just kill our access.”
Facebook did not, although the Kremlin quickly picked up the baton, throttling both Facebook and Twitter too badly to be physically accessible on the Russian Internet. Putin has also blocked access to both Western media and independent news websites in the country, and a new law criminalizes publishing information that goes against the government’s line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram. By early Monday, network watchdog NetBlocks found network data showing that the social network is restricted in Russia across multiple users.
However, the Kremlin’s recent censorship efforts have exposed serious shortcomings in the government’s larger plans to police the internet. Any Russian with a modicum of technological savvy can circumvent the Kremlin’s efforts to starve Russians of the truth.
For example, the government has had limited success so far in preventing the use of software known as virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow users to evade content restrictions. The same applies to Putin’s attempts to restrict the use of other software to evade censorship.
This puts providers of Internet bandwidth and associated services sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight in a difficult position. On the one hand, they face public pressure to punish the Russian state and economic reasons to restrict services at a time when the bills may not be paid. On the other hand, they are concerned about helping to stifle the free flow of information that could potentially mislead the Kremlin — for example, the state’s claim that the Russian military is heroically “liberating” Ukraine from the fascists.
Amazon Web Services, the main provider of cloud computing services, continues to operate in Russia, although it says it is not receiving any new customers. Cloudflare, which helps protect websites from denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which boosts site performance by bringing Internet content closer to its audience, continue to serve their Russian customers, with exceptions including cutting state-owned and sanctioned companies.
By contrast, Microsoft has not said whether it will discontinue its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.
US-based Cogent, which provides the main “backbone” of Internet traffic, cut direct connections within Russia but left pipes open through subsidiaries of Russian network providers in exchanges physically outside the country. Another major provider in the US, Lumen, did the same.
“We have no desire to isolate Russian individuals and believe that an open internet is critical to the world,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said in an interview. He said direct connections to servers inside Russia could be “used for offensive cyber efforts by the Russian government.”
Scheffer said the decision did not reflect “financial considerations,” though he acknowledged that the sharp fall in the ruble, which makes imported goods and services more expensive in Russia, could make it difficult to collect customer payments. Free service for Ukrainian customers during the conflict.
Schaefer said the moves could harm online video in Russia but would leave a lot of bandwidth for smaller files.
Other major backbone providers in Europe and Asia also continue to serve Russia, which is a net importer of bandwidth, said Doug Madhuri, director of internet analysis at network management firm Kentik. No significant decrease in connectivity from external providers was observed.
Cloudflare continues to operate four data centers in Russia even though Russian authorities have ordered government websites to abandon foreign-owned hosting providers as of Friday. In a blog post on March 7, the company said it had determined that “Russia needs more Internet access, not less.”
Under the 2019 Sovereign Internet Act, Russia is supposed to be able to operate the internet independently of the rest of the world. Practically speaking, this has brought Russia closer to the kind of extensive surveillance and control of the Internet that China and Iran practice.
The communications oversight agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system extensively a year ago when it throttled access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middle boxes — router-like devices operated and controlled remotely by bureaucrats who can block individual sites and services — installed by law at all internet providers within Russia.
But the system, which also allows the FSB to spy on Russian citizens, is a relative sieve compared to China’s Great Firewall. Andrew Sullivan, president of the nonprofit Internet Society, said there is no evidence that it has the ability to successfully decouple Russia from the wider Internet.
“Isolating the Internet in a country is culturally, economically and technically complex. It becomes much more complicated with a country like Russia, in which, unlike China, the Internet was not originally created with government control in mind.”
“When it comes to censorship, the Chinese are the only ones who can do it,” said Serge Dros, chief security engineer at Switzerland-based Proton Technologies, which provides software to create VPNs, a key tool for circumventing state censorship.
ProtonVPN, which Drews says has been innovative in finding ways to circumvent Russian blocking, reports ten times more daily signups than it was before the war. VPN services tracked by researchers at Top10VPN.com found that Facebook and Twitter downloads rose eight times above average. Her research found that the Kremlin has blocked more than 270 news and financial websites since the invasion, including BBC News and the Russian-language Voice of America services.
The Russian elite are believed to be big VPN users. Nobody expects them to disconnect.
Russian authorities are also having some success blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which allows users, like VPNs, to visit content on private “.onion” sites on the so-called dark web, researchers said. Twitter just created Tor; Other outlets like The New York Times have it, too.
However, the Kremlin has not banned the popular messaging app Telegram. It is an important channel for Ukrainian government ministries and also for Meduza, an independent Russian-language news organization based in Latvia whose website has been blocked in Russia. Meduza has 1 million followers on Telegram.
Analysts say one reason could be that Telegram is also a vital channel for Kremlin advocates.
Additionally, Telegram does not feature default end-to-end encryption, which makes messages unreadable by the company and third parties, as popular US messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp do. WhatsApp is owned by Meta, the mother of Facebook. Telegram offers users fully encrypted “private chats”, although users need to make sure they are activated.
After the invasion, the founder of Signal Moxie Marlinspike tweeted A reminder that sensitive communication on insecure apps can literally be a matter of life and death in a war. A Signal spokesperson will not share user numbers, but WhatsApp has an estimated 63 million users in Russia.
However, the ability to access external websites and apps vital to staying informed depends on foreign VPN services that Russians say they have been struggling to pay for since Visa and Mastercard cut off their country.
Ortutay reported from Oakland, California.