By FRANK BAJAK and BARBARA ORTUTAY – AP Technology Writers
BOSTON (AP) — Long before President Vladimir Putin went to war with Ukraine, he was working to turn Russia’s Internet into a powerful tool of surveillance and social control, akin to China’s so-called Great Firewall.
When Western tech companies began cutting ties with Russia after the invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldierov was alarmed. He had spent years exposing Russian censorship and feared that well-intentioned efforts to help Ukraine would instead help Putin isolate Russians from the free flow of information and aid the Kremlin’s propaganda war.
“Look guys, the only space Russians have to talk about Ukraine. and what’s going on in Russia. is Facebook,” soldatov, now banished in London. wrote on Facebook in the first week of the war. “You can’t just terminate our access.”
Facebook didn’t do this, although the Kremlin soon took over that baton, throttling both Facebook and Twitter to the point of being virtually unavailable on the Russian Internet. Putin has also blocked access to Western media and independent news sites in the country, and a new law criminalizes the dissemination of information that goes against the government’s line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram. Early Monday, network monitor NetBlocks reported that the social network was being throttled at several Russian ISPs.
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But the Kremlin’s recent censorship efforts have exposed serious flaws in the government’s larger plans to straightjacket the Internet. Any Russian with a modicum of technical intelligence can circumvent government efforts to withhold facts from Russians.
For example, the government has had limited success blocking the use of software known as virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow users to bypass content restrictions. The same applies to Putin’s attempts to restrict the use of other censorship-evading software.
This puts internet bandwidth and related service providers who understand Ukraine’s plight in a difficult position. On the one hand, they are under public pressure to punish the Russian state and, for economic reasons, to limit services at a time when bills may go unpaid. On the other hand, they are wary of stifling a free flow of information that might counteract the Kremlin’s disinformation — for example, the state’s claim that Russia’s military is heroically “ridding” Ukraine of fascists.
Amazon Web Services, a major provider of cloud computing services, continues to operate in Russia, although it says it is not accepting new customers. Both Cloudflare, which helps protect websites from denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which boosts website performance by bringing internet content closer to its audience, also continue to serve their Russian customers, with exceptions such as shutting down state-owned enterprises and companies under sanctions.
In contrast, Microsoft hasn’t said whether it will shut down its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.
US-based Cogent, which is a key “backbone” for internet traffic, has cut direct connections within Russia but left the pipes open through subsidiaries of Russian network providers to exchanges outside the country. Another major US backbone provider, Lumen, has done the same.
“We have no wish to exclude Russian individuals and believe that an open Internet is vital to the world,” said Dave Schaeffer, Cogent CEO in an interview. Direct connections to servers inside Russia, he said, could potentially “be used by the Russian government for offensive cyber efforts.”
Schaeffer said the decision did not reflect “financial considerations,” although he acknowledged that the sharp decline in the ruble, which makes imported goods and services more expensive in Russia, could make it difficult to collect customer payments. In the meantime, he said, Cogent is providing Ukrainian customers with free service during the conflict.
Schaeffer said the moves could affect Internet video in Russia but would leave plenty of bandwidth for smaller files.
Other major backbone providers in Europe and Asia also continue to supply Russia, a net importer of bandwidth, said Doug Madory, director of internet analytics at network management firm Kentik. He hasn’t noticed any significant drop in connectivity from external providers.
Cloudflare continues to operate four data centers in Russia, although Russian authorities have ordered government websites to shut down foreign-owned hosting providers starting Friday. In a March 7 blog post, the company said it had found that “Russia needs more Internet access, not less.”
According to a “sovereign internet” law from 2019, Russia should be able to operate its internet independently from the rest of the world. In practice, this has brought Russia closer to the kind of intense internet surveillance and control practiced by China and Iran.
Its telecoms regulator, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system on a large scale a year ago when it throttled access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middleboxes — router-like devices operated and remotely controlled by bureaucrats who can block individual websites and services — installed by law on all internet service providers in Russia.
But the system with which the security service FSB can also 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 it was successful in disconnecting Russia from the broader internet.
“Foreclosure of 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, wasn’t originally built with state control in mind,” he said.
“When it comes to censorship, the only ones who really know how to do it are the Chinese,” said Serge Droz, a senior security engineer at Proton Technologies, based in Switzerland, which provides software for creating VPNs, a key tool for bypassing the state Censorship.
ProtonVPN, which Droz says was inventive in finding ways to bypass Russian blocks, reports 10 times the daily logins it did before the war. VPN services tracked by researchers at Top10VPN.com found that Facebook and Twitter downloads were eight times higher than average. His research found that the Kremlin has blocked more than 270 news and financial sites since the invasion, including the Russian-language services of BBC News and Voice of America.
Russia’s elites are believed to be big VPN users. Nobody expects them to break up.
Russian authorities have also had some success blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which allows users like VPNs to visit content on special “.onion” sites on the so-called dark web, researchers say. Twitter just created a Tor site; other outlets like the New York Times also have them.
However, the Kremlin has not blocked the popular messaging app Telegram. It is an important channel for Ukrainian government ministries and also for Meduza, the Latvia-based independent Russian-language news organization whose website is blocked in Russia. Meduza has 1 million followers on Telegram.
One reason could be that Telegram is also a key channel for Kremlin propagandists, analysts say.
Additionally, Telegram doesn’t have end-to-end encryption by default, making messages unreadable to the company and outsiders like popular US-based messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook’s parent Meta. Telegram offers users fully encrypted “private chats”, although users must ensure they enable them.
After the invasion, founder of Signal Moxie Marlinspike tweeted a reminder that sensitive communications via insecure apps can literally be a matter of life and death in war. A Signal spokesman declined to give user numbers, but WhatsApp has an estimated 63 million users in Russia.
However, accessing external websites and apps, which are important for staying connected, depends on foreign VPN services, which Russians say are having trouble paying since Visa and Mastercard have cut off their country .
Ortutay reported from Oakland, California.
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