Sunday, November 27, 2022

International news outlets respond to Russian censorship with tech workarounds

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As struggle in Ukraine escalates, sending over 1,000,000 individuals fleeing and bringing terror to quite a few cities, media outlets together with the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have been blocked by the Kremlin, alongside with a number of Ukrainian websites, Twitter and Facebook. The Russian authorities has alleged that the websites had been offering false news concerning the struggle.

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But some outlets are refusing to be silenced. In response to the ban, the BBC posted a press release on its web site that mentioned, “Access to accurate, independent information is a fundamental human right which should not be denied to the people of Russia.” It hooked up directions on how to circumvent the media blackout by accessing BBC content material via two apps: Psiphon, a censorship circumvention software, and Tor, an nameless browser. Voice of America additionally vowed, in a assertion, to “promote and support tools and resources that will allow our audiences to bypass any blocking efforts imposed on our sites in Russia.”

Since the invasion, VOA’s Russian-language web site has seen a significant improve in site visitors, in accordance to Matthew Baise, director of digital technique and viewers improvement at VOA, rising from 40,000 visits per day to round 250,000, with about 20 % of that site visitors coming via circumvention networks corresponding to VPNs. Patrick Boehler, head of digital technique at RFE/RL tweeted final week that information from CrowdTangle confirmed that impartial, Russian-language news tales had been being shared, worldwide, extra typically than tales from state-run media.

The media blockade is an try to management the narrative across the invasion, which the Russian authorities and state media have insisted on referring to as a “special military operation.” But there are workarounds.

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VPNs may help customers circumvent Internet restrictions and are already extensively utilized in China — the place Internet entry has lengthy been restricted by a “Great Firewall,” blocking Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, The Washington Post and different Western media websites. In a put up on its web site Saturday, RFE/RL directed individuals to nthlink — a free VPN service supported by the Open Technology Fund. RFE additionally supplied a link to their web site on the TOR browser, which permits customers to search the Web anonymously, and inspired individuals to be part of their channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging platform that Russia tried to ban in 2018.

In a tweet on Friday (and a put up on its web site), the BBC pointed readers to Psiphon, a free, open-source app created by the University of Toronto’s Internet-freedom middle Citizen Lab. Alternately, it directed individuals to entry BBC’s web site through the Tor app, extensively used through the Arab Spring of 2010 to entry blocked social media websites. For anybody unable to obtain both app — given Russia’s crackdown — the BBC invited individuals to ship a clean electronic mail to [email protected] or [email protected] to obtain a protected link.

Russia’s Internet censorship agency announced on March 4 that it plans to block access to Facebook throughout the country. (Reuters)

Circumventing censorship is sometimes low-tech. In China, social media users have taken to posting upside-down screenshots of articles on platforms such as Weibo (akin to Twitter). Russian readers still have access to RFE/RL’s newsletter “The Week In Russia,” for instance, because email has not been restricted. The BBC announced Wednesday that it would use shortwave radio, a technology used during the Cold War, to broadcast four hours of news each day in Ukraine and parts of Russia.

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The blockade of Western media comes amid a week of increased restrictions: Russia shut down many of its own independent media outlets, including Echo Moscow, TV Rain and Meduza. Some journalists have fled the country.

accuratenewsinfo announced Friday that it had stopped broadcasting its programs in Russia. CBS and ABC said they would no longer put their Russia correspondents on air. And the BBC announced that it would halt its journalists’ work in Russia for the time being. “We are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs,” a statement said.

In a related move, a spokeswoman from The Washington Post said that the publication would remove some bylines and datelines from certain stories, to “help protect our Moscow-based journalists,” while the organization seeks “clarity about whether Russia’s new restrictions will apply to international news organizations.”

RFE/RL, which operates in 23 countries, has a history of reporting in tightly controlled media environments and has led digital-literacy campaigns in several countries. An RFE/RL employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on behalf of the organization, told The Post that the organization had shown people in Afghanistan how to wipe information from their phones in case they were stopped at Taliban checkpoints, and had taught Ukrainians how to use VPNs.

In Russia, RFE/RL has set up multiple mechanisms to evade censorship. Its mobile app has censorship-circumvention tools built into it, and the organization has made so-called mirror websites that reproduce whatever is on the official homepage. If the state blocks one mirror site, it’s easy to make another. “It’s like this cat-and-mouse game,” the staffer said. “But we’re just a very, very fast mouse.”

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

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