Exclusive: US targets Russia with tech to evade censorship of Ukraine news

LONDON/WASHINGTON, June 15 (Reuters) – The U.S. government has provided new and increased funding to three tech companies since the start of the conflict in Ukraine to help Russians circumvent censorship and gain access to Western media, according to five people close to the situation.

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.

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Reuters spoke to executives of the three US government-backed VPNs and two officials of a US government-funded non-profit organization 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 businesses has risen by nearly half to meet rising demand in Russia, the five people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The funding comes through the US 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 the OTF based in Washington, which is funded entirely by the US government and overseen by USAGM.

OTF President Laura Cunningham 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 obscure the truth and make silence dissent”.

Censorship evasion tools, including VPNs, backed by the OTF had an average of 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. He also did not give precise data on their funding.

“With the escalating Kremlin crackdown on media freedom, 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 emailed request for comment. In a statement, the Kremlin dismissed claims of online censorship: “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 the number of daily users of his app in Russia had skyrocketed recently after it was widely promoted by US government-funded news websites. such as Voice of America: “The chart went from 1,000 one day to 10,000 the next day, to 30,000 the next day, to 50,000 and straight on.”

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

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

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

Mike Hull, CEO of Psiphon, which is headquartered in Toronto, said recent US government funding had been “instrumental”. He said more than 1.3 million Russians use Psiphon’s network daily.

At Lantern, a company executive, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said he had added 1.5 million monthly users in Russia since the start of the war, starting 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 Russian-language independent media, have appeared in Moscow since the war began, according to three people familiar with the matter.

A homemade poster pasted in an apartment building in Moscow 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 links to nthLink, according to a photo of the poster reviewed by Reuters that has been 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 to a range of recent news headlines, including updates on Moscow’s war in Ukraine, from US government-funded news sites.

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

In an escalation of this pressure, the Russian parliament passed a law in March that allows journalists to be jailed for up to 15 years for intentionally spreading “false” information 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 it claimed was false information about its war in Ukraine. Both VOA and BBC strongly denied this claim at the time.

As early as 2017, Putin signed a law banning the use of VPNs, and in 2019 Russia threatened to completely block access to a series of popular VPNs. Even so, the apps continued to be used quietly in Russia.

REPRESSION

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

On the eve of the ban, demand for VPNs increased by 2,088% compared to average daily demand in mid-February, according to data from London-based monitoring firm Top10VPN. Read more

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

He said if he could access social media in Moscow, when he returned to Orel they were blocked. “Then I came across Psiphon and, oddly enough, it worked in both Moscow and Orel: no problems; always connected. »

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

Although interest in VPNs has waned somewhat recently, daily usage is still up 452% 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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Reporting by James Pearson in London and Christopher Bing in Washington; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Chris Sanders and Daniel Flynn

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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