EXCLUSIVE: US Targets Russia With Technology To Bypass Ukrainian News Censorship

LONDON/WASHINGTON, June 15 (Reuters) – The US government has boosted new and increased funding for three tech companies since the start of the Ukraine conflict to help Russians bypass censors and access Western media. , according to five people familiar with the situation.

The funding effort is centered around 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 bypass geographic restrictions on content or to evade government censorship technology.

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Reuters spoke with the executives of the three US government-backed VPNs and two officials from a US government-funded nonprofit that provided them with funding, the Open Technology Fund (OTF), who said anti-censorship apps have seen significant growth 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 companies has been increased by almost half to cope with rising demand in Russia, the five people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The funds flow through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a federal agency that oversees US government-backed broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as through the Washington-based OTF, which is funded entirely by the US government and overseen by the USAGM.

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

OTF-backed censorship circumvention tools, including VPNs, averaged more than 4 million users last month in Russia, Cunningham added.

In a statement, USAGM also said it was supporting the development of a range of tools to circumvent censorship, including VPNs. Nor did it give precise data on its financing.

“With the Kremlin’s increasing crackdown on press freedom, we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in demand for these tools among Russians,” said USAGM spokeswoman Laurie Moy.

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

Martin Zhu, director of engineering at nthLink, said daily users of his app in Russia recently spiked after US government-funded news websites, to 30,000 the next day, to 50,000 and straight up. “.

“There are many people in Russia who do not trust Putin or the government media,” he said.

Zhu, who shared confidential data with Reuters illustrating this surge in users, said his company would normally have a hard time operating inside Russia without financial support from the US government.

Nigel Gibbs, public affairs officer for VOA, said he regularly promotes all three VPNs on his network and has integrated one of them, Psiphon, directly into VOA’s smartphone app.

Mike Hull, chief executive of Toronto-based Psiphon, said the recent funding from the US government had been “instrumental”. He said that more than 1.3 million Russians a day were using the Psiphon network.

At Lantern, a company executive, 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 users. global monthly, thanks to promotion in the US government media and also word of mouth on the Telegram messaging app, which is popular in Russia.

VPN POSTERS

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

A homemade sign plastered on 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 that, a QR code links to nthLink, according to a photo of the sign reviewed by Reuters that was corroborated by three separate sources.

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

Opening nthLink in Russia takes users to a number of recent news headlines, including updates on Moscow’s war in Ukraine, from US government-funded news websites.

Long before Moscow launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian authorities had been pressuring domestic media they viewed as hostile and foreign-backed by designating some outlets and journalists as “foreign agents.”

In an escalation of that pressure, Russia’s parliament passed a law in March that allows journalists to be jailed for up to 15 years for intentionally spreading “fake” news about the Russian military.

Moscow also cut off access to several foreign media websites, including the BBC and Voice of America, on March 4 for spreading what was allegedly false information about its war in Ukraine. At the time, VOA and BBC strongly denied the claim.

Back in 2017, Putin signed a law banning the use of VPNs, and in 2019 Russia threatened to completely block access to a number of popular VPNs. Still, the apps have continued to be used quietly in Russia.

CAMPAIGN

VPN demand in Russia soared in March when Moscow introduced restrictions on some foreign social networks, including Facebook and Instagram.

On the eve of the ban, VPN demand soared 2,088% higher than average daily demand in mid-February, data from London-based monitoring firm Top10VPN showed. read more

“The need to look for a VPN arose with the blocks on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” said a resident of Oryol, a city 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Moscow, who declined to give his full name for fear of retaliation.

He said that while he was able to access social media in Moscow, when he returned to Oryol, they were blocked. “Then I came across Psiphon and, oddly enough, it worked in 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 ebbed a bit recently, daily usage is still up 452% on average compared to 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, and an estimated 85% have internet access, according to 2020 World Bank data.

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Reporting from James Pearson in London and Christopher Bing in Washington; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London; Edited by Chris Sanders and Daniel Flynn

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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