Long before going to war with Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin was working to turn the Russian internet into a powerful tool for surveillance and social control akin to China’s so-called Great Firewall.
So when Western tech companies began cutting ties with Russia after its invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov became alarmed. He had spent years exposing Russian censorship and feared that well-meaning efforts to help Ukraine would instead help Putin insulate Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war.
“Listen guys, the only space Russians have to talk about Ukraine and what’s happening in Russia is Facebook,” Soldatov, now an exile in London, wrote on Facebook during the premiere. war week. “You can’t just, like, kill our access.”
Facebook did not, although the Kremlin quickly took over, throttling Facebook and Twitter so much that they are effectively inaccessible on the Russian internet. Putin has also blocked access to Western media and the country’s independent news sites, and a new law criminalizes the dissemination of information that contradicts the government line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram.
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Yet the Kremlin’s latest censorship efforts have also exposed serious flaws in the government’s broader plans to camouflage the internet. Any Russian with a modicum of technological intelligence can circumvent the Kremlin’s efforts to deprive Russians of facts.
This puts Ukraine-sensitive Internet bandwidth and related service providers in a difficult position. On the one hand, they face public pressure to punish the Russian state and economic reasons to limit services at a time when bills may well go unpaid. On the other hand, they fear they are helping to stifle the free flow of information that could counter Kremlin disinformation – for example, the state’s claim that the Russian military is heroically “liberating” Ukraine from fascists.
Amazon Web Services, a major cloud computing service provider, continues to operate in Russia, although it says it is not taking on new customers. Cloudflare, which helps protect websites against denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which improves site performance by bringing Internet content closer to its audience, also continue to serve their Russian customers. exception in particular of the closure of public enterprises. and companies under sanctions.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has not said whether it will stop its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.
US-based Cogent, which provides a major ‘backbone’ for internet traffic, cut direct connections inside Russia, but left pipes open through subsidiaries of Russian network providers to exchanges physically outside the country. Another major US backbone provider, Lumen, did the same.
“We have no desire to cut off the Russians and believe an open internet is essential for the world,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said in an interview. Direct connections to servers inside Russia, he said, could potentially “be used for offensive cyber efforts by the Russian government.”
Schaeffer said the decision did not reflect “financial considerations”, although he acknowledged that the sharp drop in the rouble, which makes imported goods and services more expensive in Russia, could make it difficult to collect payments from customers. In the meantime, he said, Cogent is providing Ukrainian customers with free service during the conflict.
Schaeffer said the moves could corrupt internet video in Russia, but would leave plenty of bandwidth for smaller files.
Other major backbone providers in Europe and Asia also continue to serve Russia, a net importer of bandwidth, said Doug Madory, director of internet analytics for network management firm Kentik. He noted no appreciable drop in connectivity from outside providers.
Cloudflare continues to operate four data centers in Russia, even though Russian authorities have ordered government websites to remove foreign hosting providers from Friday. In a March 7 blog post, the company said it had determined that “Russia needs more internet access, not less.”
Under a 2019 “sovereign internet” law, Russia is supposed to be able to operate its internet independently from the rest of the world. In practice, this has brought Russia closer to the kind of intensive internet surveillance and control practiced by China and Iran.
Its telecommunications watchdog agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system on a large scale a year ago when it restricted access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middleboxes – router-like devices remotely managed and controlled by bureaucrats that can block individual websites and services – installed by law at all internet service providers in Russia.
But the system, which also allows the FSB security service 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 was no evidence he had the ability to successfully disconnect Russia from the wider internet.
“Closing a country’s internet is complicated, culturally, economically and technologically. And it gets much more complicated with a country like Russia, whose internet, unlike China’s, was not originally built with government control in mind,” he said. he declares.
“When it comes to censorship, the only ones who can really do it are the Chinese,” said Serge Droze, senior security engineer at Switzerland-based Proton Technologies, which offers software for creating “virtual private networks,” or VPNs. , a main tool for circumventing state censorship.
ProtonVPN, which Droze says has been inventive in finding ways to circumvent the Russian block, reports getting ten times more daily sign-ups than before the war. VPN services tracked by Top10VPN.com researchers found Facebook and Twitter downloads eight times higher than average. His research revealed that the Kremlin had blocked more than 270 news and financial sites since the invasion, including BBC News and the Russian-language services of Voice of America.
Russian elites are considered heavy VPN users. No one expects them to disconnect.
Russian authorities are also successfully blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which, like VPNs, allows users to visit content from special “.onion” sites on the so-called dark web, researchers say. Twitter has just created a Tor site; other outlets such as The New York Times have them too.
The Kremlin did not block popular messaging app Telegram, however. It is an important channel for Ukrainian government ministries as well as for Meduza, the independent Russian-language news agency based in Latvia whose website is blocked in Russia. Meduza has 1 million subscribers on Telegram.
One reason may be that Telegram is also a vital channel for Kremlin propagandists, analysts say.
Additionally, Telegram does not offer end-to-end encryption by default, which makes messages unreadable by the company and outsiders, as popular US-based messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp do. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook’s parent company, Meta. Telegram offers users fully encrypted “private chats”, although users should make sure to enable it.
After the invasion, Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike tweeted a reminder that sensitive communication on insecure apps can literally be a matter of life and death in times of war. A Signal spokesperson would not share user numbers, but WhatsApp has around 63 million users in Russia.
The ability to access essential external websites and apps to stay informed, however, depends on foreign-based VPN services which Russians say have struggled to afford since Visa and Mastercard cut off their country.