War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky internet controls

Mar 13, 2022, 9:11 PM | Updated: Mar 17, 2022, 11:16 am

BOSTON (AP) — Long before waging war on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin was working to make Russia’s internet a powerful tool of surveillance and social control akin to China’s so-called Great Firewall.

So when Western tech companies began cutting ties with Russia following its invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov was alarmed. He’d spent years exposing Russian censorship and feared that well-intentioned efforts to aid Ukraine would instead help Putin isolate Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war.

“Look, guys the only space the Russians have to talk about Ukraine. and what is going on in Russia. is Facebook,” Soldatov, now exiled in London. wrote on Facebook in the war’s first week. “You cannot just, like, kill our access.”

Facebook didn’t, although the Kremlin soon picked up that baton, throttling both Facebook and Twitter so badly they are effectively unreachable on the Russian internet. Putin has also blocked access to both Western media and independent news sites in the country, and a new law criminalizes spreading information that contradicts the government’s line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram. By early Monday, the network monitor NetBlocks reported the social network throttled across multiple Russian internet providers.

Yet the Kremlin’s latest censorship efforts have revealed serious shortcomings in the government’s bigger plans to straightjacket the internet. Any Russian with a modicum of tech smarts can circumvent government efforts to starve Russians of fact.

For instance, the government has so far had only limited success blocking the use of software known as virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allows users to evade content restrictions. The same goes for Putin’s attempts to restrict the use of other censorship-evading software.

That puts providers of internet bandwidth and associated services sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight in a tough spot. On one side, they face public pressure to punish the Russian state and economic reasons to limit services at a time when bills might well go unpaid. On the other, they’re wary of helping stifle a free flow of information that can counter Kremlin disinformation — for instance, the state’s claim that Russia’s military is heroically “liberating” Ukraine from fascists.

Amazon Web Services, a major provider of cloud computing services, continues to operate in Russia, although it says it’s not taking on any new customers. Both Cloudflare, which helps shield websites from denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which boosts site performance by putting internet content closer to its audience, also continue to serve their Russian customers, with exceptions including cutting off state-owned companies and firms under sanctions.

Microsoft, by contrast, hasn’t said whether it will halt its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.

U.S.-based Cogent, which provides a major “backbone” for internet traffic, has cut direct connections inside Russia but left open the pipes through subsidiaries of Russian network providers at exchanges physically outside the country. Another major U.S. backbone provider, Lumen, has done the same.

“We have no desire to cut off Russian individuals and think that an open internet is critical to 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 didn’t reflect “financial considerations,” although he acknowledged that the ruble’s sharp drop, which makes imported goods and services more expensive in Russia, could make it difficult to collect customer payments. Meanwhile, he said, Cogent is providing Ukrainian customers free service during the conflict.

Schaeffer said these moves might impair internet video in Russia but will 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 analysis for the network management firm Kentik. He has noted no appreciable drop in connectivity from outside providers.

Cloudflare continues to operate four data centers in Russia even though Russian authorities ordered government websites to drop foreign-owned hosting providers as of Friday. In a March 7 blog post the company said it had determined “Russia needs more Internet access, not less.”

Under a 2019 “sovereign internet” law, Russia is supposed to be able to operate its internet independent of the rest of the world. In practice, that has brought Russia closer to the kind of intensive internet monitoring and control practiced by China and Iran.

Its telecommunications oversight agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system at scale a year ago when it throttled access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middleboxes — router-like devices run and remotely controlled by bureaucrats that can block individual websites and services — installed by law at all internet providers inside Russia.

But the system, which also lets the FSB security service spy on Russian citizens, is a relative sieve compared to China’s Great Firewall. Andrew Sullivan, president of the nonprofit Internet Society, said there’s no evidence it has the ability to successfully disconnect Russia from the wider internet.

“Walling off a country’s internet is complicated, culturally, economically and technologically. And it becomes far more complicated with a country like Russia, whose internet, unlike China’s, was not originally built out with government control in mind,” he said.

“When it comes to censorship, the only ones who can really do it are the Chinese,” said Serge Droz, a senior security engineer at Swiss-based Proton Technologies, which offers software for creating VPNs, a principal tool for circumventing state censorship.

ProtonVPN, which Droz says has been inventive in finding ways to circumvent Russian blocking, reports clocking ten times as many daily signups than before the war. VPN services tracked by researchers at Top10VPN.com found Facebook and Twitter downloads surging eight times higher than average. Its research found the Kremlin to have blocked more than 270 news and financial sites since the invasion, including BBC News and Voice of America’s Russian-language services.

Russia’s elites are believed to be big VPN users. No one expects them to disconnect.

Russian authorities are also having some success blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which like VPNs lets users visit content at special “.onion” sites on the so-called dark web, researchers say. Twitter just created a Tor site; other outlets such as The New York Times also have them.

The Kremlin has not, however, blocked the popular Telegram messaging app. It’s an important conduit 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 may be that Telegram is also a vital conduit for Kremlin propagandists, analysts say.

Additionally, Telegram does not feature default end-to-end encryption, which renders messages unreadable by the company and outsiders, as the popular U.S.-based messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp do. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook’s parent, Meta. Telegram does offer users fully encrypted “private chats,” although users have to make sure to activate them.

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 war. A Signal spokesman would not share user numbers, but WhatsApp has an estimated 63 million users in Russia.

Being able to access outside websites and apps vital to staying informed depend, however, on foreign-based VPN services that Russians say they are having trouble paying for since Visa and Mastercard cut off their country.


Ortutay reported from Oakland, California.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Musher Jessie Holmes takes a break from cooking his dogs a meal to nuzzle with two wheel dog...
Associated Press

Alaska reality star injured while cleaning up storm damage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A reality television star and Iditarod musher was injured this week while helping clean up storm damage along Alaska’s western coast. Jessie Holmes, who since 2015 has starred in “Life Below Zero,” a show about life in rural Alaska produced by National Geographic TV, was injured by falling debris in a […]
15 hours ago
FILE - A physician assistant prepares a syringe with the monkeypox vaccine for a patient during a v...
Associated Press

Some officials now say monkeypox elimination unlikely in US

NEW YORK (AP) — Some U.S. health officials are conceding that monkeypox is probably not going away anytime soon. The disease’s spread is slowing but the virus is so widespread that elimination is unlikely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. That conclusion was in a recent CDC report, and echoed Friday by Marc […]
15 hours ago
American's Andy Huynh, right, and Alex Drueke arrive at the TWA Hotel on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 in ...
Associated Press

U.S. captives ‘prayed for death’ on brutal ride from Ukraine

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Even after three months of captivity that included execution threats, physical torture, solitary confinement and food deprivation, it was the ride to freedom that nearly broke Alex Drueke, a U.S. military veteran released last week with nine other prisoners who went to help Ukraine fight off Russian invaders. His hands were […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Plea deal for Ex-Trump adviser accused of unwanted advances

LAS VEGAS (AP) — An ex-adviser to former President Donald Trump has taken a plea deal to resolve allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances to a GOP donor at a Las Vegas event. Corey Lewandowski entered into a plea agreement earlier this month involving a charge of misdemeanor battery, according to online Clark County […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Trump fraud lawsuit goes to judge who held him in contempt

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York attorney general’s lawsuit accusing Donald Trump and his company of fraud has been assigned to a state court judge who repeatedly ruled against the former president in related subpoena disputes — including holding him in contempt, fining him $110,000 and forcing him to sit for a deposition. Trump’s […]
15 hours ago
FILE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp smiles as he stands next to a Rivian electric truck during a ceremon...
Associated Press

Georgia judge nixes tax break for electric truck firm Rivian

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia judge rejected an agreement that would have provided a huge property tax break to Rivian Automotive, clouding the upstart electric truck maker’s plans to build a plant east of Atlanta. Morgan County Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell rejected what is normally a routine request by a local government to validate […]
15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.
(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky internet controls