When censors at Belarus’ Ministry of Information announced they were going to block the website of lifestyle publication KYKY in the summer of 2020, everything changed for its team of journalists and editors. Many of its team members fled the country, fearing widespread crackdowns and arrests, says Sasha Romanova, a director at KYKY. When censors finally blocked the website in December 2020, the impact was immediate. “Before blocking, we had almost 5 million visits monthly,” Romanova says. The number of visitors dropped off a cliff.
Then the magazine started fighting back. With readers in Belarus unable to access KYKY’s website, it started registering new, unblocked domains and hosting the articles on them. “We started to buy domains with silly names,” Romanova explains. The domains—such as massandry.net and netetabletki.rip—allowed people to read independent media, and simultaneously were named to mock Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
Every week, Romanova says, KYKY would buy a new domain and wait until censors found it and blocked it. “They’re so ancient and bureaucratic, our domain name was living for a week,” Romanova says. After around two months, Romanova says, continually moving to new domains became expensive and untenable.
However, since around June this year, much of KYKY’s readership has returned as a result of a new anti-censorship tool that supercharges the process of registering unblocked domains and automatically syndicating news articles. The project, called Samizdat Online, makes blocked websites visible to people and doesn’t need any technical knowledge to use.
Yevgeny Simkin, the cofounder of Samizdat Online and founder of a software engineering firm, says it is designed to help people in Russia and other oppressed countries access uncensored news and information. “Putin’s propaganda operation is probably singly the only competent thing that they have,” says Simkin, who left Soviet Russia when he was a child and started the project after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February. “At least at this stage, undermining that is technologically not all that complicated.”
Around the world, countries that block websites frequently do so using DNS blocking, which essentially means that websites can’t be accessed by typing their domain names. Samizdat Online, which was first covered by Business Insider, works by syndicating stories from news websites to new domains. “We create and register these random-looking domains in large numbers,” Simkin says. Samizdat Online calls them SOS-Links.
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The organization has permission from more than a dozen blocked publications in Russia and Belarus to syndicate their content. Its homepage currently lists websites that it is syndicating, but from next week on will appear as a more traditional news site, suggesting articles from publications it syndicates and providing shareable SOS-Links to their websites.
Every time you access the website of The Moscow Times using Samizdat Online, for instance, it will show on a different domain. When I open the homepage, I am shown it on the domain: sfzgohtwrm.net/. The rest of the URL after the slash is made up of a long string of characters and letters, which encode data about the page you’re visiting, such as the CSS needed to display the website correctly. When I click an article at the top of the homepage, I am taken to the domain raul.help/ (again, followed by encoded data). Another click takes me to the domain: uvsoxmqdcu.net/.
There are two main components to running Samizdat Online, Simkin says. The first is a primary server that generates and stores the nonsense domains. This server also keeps a list of the sites the group is syndicating and the rules for displaying them. The second part is a series of decentralized servers that register the domains and host them. “Then those domains are included in the randomization of link generation,” Simkin says.
The result is that people can dodge censorship by using links from Samizdat Online, with all the sites hosted on the open web. Unlike other anti-censorship tools, such as VPNs or Tor, this doesn’t require any tech knowledge or software downloads. It is as simple as clicking a link and sharing it with friends. However, unlike VPNs or Tor, it does mean that if someone’s web traffic is being monitored, there is a risk it can be linked back to them. (Simkin says Samizdat Online doesn’t store IP addresses of people who visit its links. Instead, it hashes IPs to know where people are accessing it from.)
The name Samizdat comes from the former Soviet Union, and was used when people would self-publish banned media and circulate it through underground networks. “Samizdat in Soviet Union times was quite risky,” says Anna Trubachova, the editor of Samizdat Online. “If you were caught with the paper copies of it, you could be arrested, fined, or imprisoned.”
Both Russia and Belarus block scores of websites: Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders ranks Belarus 153rd and Russia 155th in its global index of 180 countries. Reporters Without Borders says Belarus was “Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists” until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February. It also says there are currently 15 journalists who are in jail in Russia, most recently Ivan Safronov, who was sentenced to 22 years for “revealing so-called ‘state secrets’ that were already available online.”
Since Russian troops entered Ukraine, the Kremlin has ramped up its online blocking and cracked down on anyone who opposes it. Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at NGO Access Now, highlights crackdowns on VPNs, anonymity service Tor, and the Russian state declaring opposition groups as ‘foreign agents.’ “Pretty much all independent media at this point, at least the major ones, have been blocked,” Krapiva says.
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According to an analysis of websites blocked in Russia, more than 600,000 sites are currently inaccessible—an 848 percent increase between March 2021 and March 2022. (Neither Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, nor Belarus’ Ministry of Information immediately responded to requests for comment about their censorship regimes. The website of the Ministry of Information also appeared to be offline and inaccessible.)
Krapiva says Samizdat Online appears to be a useful tool to avoid censorship online, alongside the use of VPNs, Tor, and other anti-censorship tools. In the past, other efforts to mirror websites to avoid blocking have been created. “There’s really no single thing like a silver bullet that would solve all the censorship problems,” Krapiva adds. However, having more options for people with different levels of technical skills is useful.
As Samizdat Online prepares to fully launch, it is also on the verge of adding Russia’s biggest independent news organization, Meduza, to its list of syndicated websites. Galina Timchenko, the CEO of Meduza, says the media organization reviewed how Samizdat Online works and decided to become involved. Before Meduza was blocked by Russian officials in March, it had 18 million monthly readers. Timchenko says it has lost around 40 percent of its readership from its desktop and mobile versions, while the number of people subscribing to its Telegram channel and mobile app has increased.
“After the first month of the war, we realized that blocking is working, unfortunately,” Timchenko says. Timchenko describes the Samizdat Online system as a “very smart” way to get around website blocks. “It will not give us a huge audience,” Timchenko says. “But it’s a way to grow our audience inside Russia, among those readers who are not very familiar with VPNs or who are not technically driven.”
Simkin says the long-term goal of Samizdat Online is to be a profitable company, due to the cost of spinning up servers and developing the project. Samizdat Online is also planning to add blocked websites in other censored countries, such as China.
However, it’s likely that Samizdat Online will first have to deal with the Russian censorship machine. Simkin predicts that it is likely Roskomnadzor will start blocking the Samizdat Online website and the domains it generates once it is more established. Each time a domain is blocked, Simkin says, its systems will detect this and register another new random domain. Before this happens, he says, Samizdat Online will keep ramping up its systems to avoid as many blocks as possible—it will also publish its SOS-Links to a Telegram channel, as well as a daily newsletter. It can also generate its own SOS-Links for its homepage.
“The goal is to get the Russian and the Belarusian population to develop serious doubts about what their governments are doing,” Simkin says. “That’s all I’m looking for—is to seed doubt in this population.”