Internet censorship in Russia forces citizens to turn to the dark web and VPNs for news and social media


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  • Social media platforms and news sites have all but disappeared from the Russian Internet.
  • The Kremlin banned platforms including Facebook, while others left due to a “fake news” law.
  • VPN software downloads have soared, but proponents remain concerned about “isolation”.
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In just under a month, the internet in Russia has become almost unrecognizable after hundreds of media outlets and social media platforms disappeared from the web, while global tech companies like netflix and Apple restricted their services.

Earlier this month, the Kremlin banned Twitter and Facebook from the Russian internet, and on Monday it blocked access to Instagram. Russian Instagram influencers posted tearful goodbye videosurging subscribers to switch to platforms they could still access.

Russia has quickly and drastically entered a kind of digital isolation, cutting millions of citizens off from access to accurate information and online spaces to express their opinions. As Moscow seeks to stifle dissent and control the narrative of its invasion of Ukraine, digital and human rights groups are concerned about the future of Russia’s internet. In addition to the Kremlin blocking access to many online platforms and news sites, several companies and media were forced to suspend their activities after the country passed a law that makes it a serious crime to publish information that the government considers “false”.

The law also came as the Kremlin sought to spread a mountain of misinformation and misinformation on the war in Ukraine, leading to major platforms – like YouTube – to remove or label Russian state-controlled media.

TikTok announced in early March that it would block Russian users from live stream or download new videos, citing the “fake news” law. But the company went even further by restricting content for Russian users, according to a Tuesday report of the nonprofit tech transparency group Tracking Exposed.

TikTok appears to block 95% of the platform’s content from Russian users, including the accounts of French President Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations, as well as the platform’s most popular stars like Charli D’Amelio.

“This is the first time a global social media platform has restricted access to content on this scale,” Tracking Exposed said. said in a tweet.

Major international news outlets, including the BBC, CNN and Bloomberg, have also suspended service in Russiaciting the “fake news” law.

“It’s a very bad situation right now, and we’re trying to ensure that people’s human rights are respected,” said Natalia Krapiva, technical and legal adviser at the nonprofit Access Now, which works to protect digital access. globally.

Tech companies pulling out of Russia or platforms that severely restrict services could harm average Russians, Krapiva said, as well as Ukrainians who are in occupied territories and can only access Russian internet. .

“While there are obviously legitimate concerns and the need to impose sanctions on Russia, some of the actions are now essentially isolating and disconnecting people who actually oppose the war,” Krapiva told Insider.

Russians are turning to VPNs and the dark web to avoid online censorship

As Russian internet users continue to digitally isolate themselves, some have made efforts to stay connected through the use of virtual private networks. vpn allow people to connect to the internet through a secondary remote server that can bypass specific country restrictions.

Surfshark, a Lithuania-based VPN company, told Insider that its average weekly sales in Russia have increased by 3,500% since February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The biggest spike occurred on March 5 and 6, the company said, when Russia announced it would take steps to block access to Twitter and Facebook.

“Such a rapid increase means that people living in Russia are actively looking for ways to avoid government surveillance and censorship, whether it’s accessing blocked websites or social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram,” said Surfshark spokesperson Gabriele Racaityte.

Demand for VPNs surged amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to data from digital trends and news firm SensorTower. Demand for VPN services in Russia hit a new peak on Monday at 2,692% compared to the average demand in the week before the invasion of Ukraine, the company said.

As Russia increasingly restricts internet access, some outlets and platforms have also tried to find workarounds to censorship. The New York Times started a channel on Telegram with updates on the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Twitter last week launched a version of its social networking platform on Tor, Ars Technica reported, although it did not link the announcement to the invasion. (Tor is software that allows users to browse the web anonymously and can be used to access the dark web.)

The Russian government has blocked at least 384 domains related to its invasion of Ukraine since the conflict began on Monday, according to VPN review and monitoring company Top10VPN, including websites from global media, BBC News, Deutsche Welle , Ukrayinska Pravda and Radio. Free Liberty.

A total of 203 news domains were blocked in Russia, according to Top10VPN, with the majority being Ukrainian news services. There are also “a growing number of independent Russian and foreign services with local language sites” that have also been blocked, according to the data.

Despite the increase in VPN downloads, Krapiva said not everyone has access to VPN services. People who aren’t as tech-savvy and others may not know about them or be able to download them, and there’s also a cost to VPN services, especially ones that are safe and secure.

Others may have problems paying them due to Western sanctions which have resulted in restrictions access to certain Western means of payment, said Krapiva, including Visa, Mastercard and American Express. Human rights organizations warn that the risk of Russians being cut off from the global internet remains high.

“Millions of Russians rely on the internet for news and communication with the outside world amid unprecedented government censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, the nonprofit’s Europe and Central Asia director. Human Rights Watch. in a blog post on Monday.

“Foreign tech companies should seek to provide services and products to people in Russia to help them access the internet and mitigate the risk of isolation.”

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