US targets Russia with technology to evade censorship of information about Ukraine

The funding effort focuses on three companies that build virtual private networks (VPNs) – nthLink, Psiphon and Lantern – and is designed to support a recent surge in their Russian users, the sources said.

VPNs help users hide their identity and change their location online, often to circumvent geo-restrictions on content or to evade government censorship technology.

Reuters spoke to executives of the three U.S. government-backed VPNs and two officials from a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that provided them with funds – the Open Technology Fund (OTF) – who said that anti-censorship apps have grown significantly in Russia since President Vladimir Putin launched his war in Ukraine on February 24.

Between 2015 and 2021, the three VPNs received at least $4.8 million in US funding, according to publicly available funding documents reviewed by Reuters. Since February, total funding allocated to businesses has risen by nearly half to meet rising demand in Russia, the five people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Funding goes through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) – a federal agency that oversees US government-supported broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – as well as the Washington-based FTO, which is fully funded by the US government and overseen by USAGM.

Laura Cunningham, president of the OTF, said the organization has increased its support for the three VPNs because “the Russian government is trying to censor what its citizens can see and say online in order to hide the truth and silence the dissidents.”

Censorship evasion tools, including VPNs, backed by the FTO averaged more than 4 million users last month in Russia, Cunningham added.

In a statement, USAGM also said it supports the development of a range of censorship circumvention tools, including VPNs. She also did not give precise data on their financing.

“As the Kremlin’s escalating crackdown on free media, we have seen an extraordinary increase in demand for these tools among Russians,” USAGM spokeswoman Laurie Moy said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to an email request for comment. In a statement, the Kremlin dismissed online censorship allegations: “We do not censor the Internet. Russia regulates certain web resources, like many other countries around the world.”

Martin Zhu, director of engineering at nthLink, said daily users of his app in Russia had skyrocketed recently after it was heavily promoted by US government-funded news sites such as Voice of America. America: “The chart went from 1,000 one day to 10,000 the next day, 30,000 the next day, 50,000 and straight on.”

“There are a lot of people in Russia who don’t trust Putin or the government media,” he added.

Zhu, who shared confidential data with Reuters showing the spike in users, said his company would normally struggle to operate in Russia without the financial support of the US government.

Nigel Gibbs, VOA’s public affairs manager, said the company regularly promotes the three VPNs on its network, and has integrated one of them, Psiphon, directly into the VOA’s smartphone app. VOA.

Mike Hull, CEO of Toronto-based Psiphon, said recent US government funding had been “instrumental”. He said more than 1.3 million Russians a day use Psiphon’s network.

At Lantern, an executive with the company, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said it had added 1.5 million monthly users in Russia since the start of the war, from a previous base of around five million global monthly users, thanks to promotion on US government media and also word of mouth on the messaging app Telegram, which is popular in Russia.

VPN POSTERS

Posters advertising nthLink and other US government-backed VPNs, as well as independent Russian-language media, have appeared in Moscow since the war began, according to three people familiar with the matter.

A homemade poster stuck in a Moscow apartment building in the month after the invasion read: “Read about Russia and Ukraine in Russian. Knowing the truth is not a crime!” Below, a QR code returns nthLink, according to a photo of the poster reviewed by Reuters and corroborated by three separate sources.

Reuters was unable to determine the exact location of the poster or who hung it. The Moscow mayor’s office and local police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the posters.

The opening of nthLink in Russia brings users a series of recent news headlines, including updates on Moscow’s war in Ukraine, from news sites funded by the US government.

Long before Moscow launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine, the Russian authorities had put pressure on the domestic media which they considered hostile and supported from abroad by designating certain media and journalists as ” foreign agent”.

In an escalation of this pressure, the Russian parliament passed a law in March which allows journalists to be imprisoned for up to 15 years who intentionally broadcast “fake” news about the Russian army.

On March 4, Moscow also cut off access to several foreign media websites, including the BBC and Voice of America, for spreading what it considers false information about its war in Ukraine. At the time, VOA and the BBC both strongly denied this allegation.

As early as 2017 Putin signed a law that banned the use of VPNs and in 2019 Russia threatened to completely block access to a series of popular VPNs. Despite this, the apps continued to be used discreetly in Russia.

CRACKDOWN

Demand for VPNs in Russia exploded in March when Moscow introduced restrictions on some foreign social media, including Facebook and Instagram.

The day before the ban, demand for VPNs spiked 2,088% above the average daily demand in mid-February, according to data from London-based monitoring firm Top10VPN.

“The need to look for a VPN arose with the blocks on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” said a resident of Oryol, a town 320 km south of Moscow, who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals. .

He said that if he could access social media in Moscow, when he returned Oryol, they were blocked. “Then I came across Psiphon and strangely it worked both Moscow and Oryol: no glitches; always connected.”

Authorities in Moscow and Oryol did not respond to requests for comment.

Although interest in VPNs has cooled somewhat recently, daily usage is still up 452% on average from the week before the war broke out, according to Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.

“We conservatively estimate that at least 6 million VPNs have been installed since the invasion,” Migliano said.

Russia’s population is around 144 million, of which around 85% have internet access, according to 2020 World Bank data.

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