The ‘samizdat’ returns, the underground press of Russians who do not use VPNs or other Internet tricks | Technology
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More than 100 million Russians cannot access the thousands of websites that the Kremlin has blocked since the war began. On the one hand, some 10 million people do not have Internet and, on the other, for the vast majority of the country, especially older and middle-aged people, the problem is that censorship requires them to have a minimum knowledge of the Internet that de facto left out of that reality. Until now. “We have created a tool where you find an article that you think is important and then share it with the whole world without them needing virtual private networks (VPNs). With your brother, with your friend or with the neighbor, people who if they had to install a VPN, they would not. We make distribution much easier”, Yevgeny Simkin, co-founder of Samizdat Online, told EL PAÍS.
“The samizdat it is a culture. My father learned everything he had to learn about the real world through samizdat Soviet, even yoga,” recalls Simkin in a video conference from New York. That word defines the clandestine literature that flourished in the times of the USSR to evade censorship. Soviet citizens exchanged works and copied them to reach more people. A classic example is a timeless jewel that is now revered in Putin’s Russia and that became popular among those shadows, The teacher and Margaritaby Mikhail Bulgakov.
As a result of the massive blocking of websites by the Russian authorities, many citizens have started to use VPNs, although it is difficult to estimate the number. The Atlas VPN initiative estimates that some 34 million Russians were using them in the summer. Around 130 million citizens have access to the Internet, so only one in four would use this type of tool, according to studies.
The philosophy of this samizdat it is being able to share the articles with people who have not downloaded any VPN. roughly“when you want to have a website, you register your domain [su nombre]. To do this, you contact a company that manages them, and they put it in the tables that all the DNS machines have. [que traducen el dominio de palabras normales a identificadores de números]. When your computer wants to go to that website, it goes to machines that are in your country and they tell it the address”, sums up Simkin. “The authorities that block the BBC do not have control of the DNS machines that are in Spain or the United Kingdom, but they do have control of the DNS machines of Russia, Belarus, or Iran, and they order the domains to be hidden or deleted from their lists. those who do not want people to arrive ”, he adds.
In the case of VPNs, they mask their user and connect them to DNS machines in other countries. But for people who don’t have those tools, what Samizdat has done “is put hundreds of servers and thousands and thousands of domains with absolutely ridiculous names that replace the original ones.” “Do you want to enter the newspaper jellyfish from Moscow? Our server receives the request and encrypts it with another domain, for example nqtguizhxe.net, which is not on the authorities’ blacklist”, says the founder of the initiative. With the bureaucracy of those countries, it will be days before the invented domain of the news is detected and suppressed by officials.
“If they block us from Samizdat, it will be a small problem. If you’ve already come to us, you’ve come to us with VPN, you’re the kind of person who already knows how to search for content and knows they live in a world of fakes. Those who seek us find us, and once they arrive they will spread the links”, Simkin points out, although he assures that they will be “three steps ahead” of the authorities.
Its portal collects stories from more than thirty media outlets with which it has agreements and translates the main ones into the five languages used by its editors: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, English and Farsi. “We want to go to China as soon as possible. The only reason not to be there is that there is no money. China is a very sophisticated technology and we have to be prepared”, points out the founder.
Enthusiasm between Western politicians and Eastern media
Simkin came to the US as a child “during the Soviet migration wave of the seventies.” Engineer and founder of a computer firm, he recalls that “everything changed in February 2014 ″, when Russia annexed Crimea and the Donbas war began. “My biggest team had 10 people in Russia and 10 in Ukraine. When I fixed the problems and saw that everything was fine, I realized that I really wanted to do something else, ”he recalls. “I have some connections to US politics and media, I have the technologies and I speak Russian fluently. He could do something and undermine Putin’s propaganda machine, ”he adds.
The idea arose a couple of weeks after the start of the all-out war against Ukraine, in mid-March of this year, and has slowly hatched until the launch of its portal in July. “We have moved slowly, being very careful not to go too fast and release something that was not ready and suffered crashes. Once the Iranian mullahs or Roskomnadzor understand what is happening, they will go after us, and we did not want to provoke them ahead of time, ”he assures. According to his calculations, they have more than 100,000 daily entries, “although it is difficult to keep track.”
One of its co-founders is the Belarusian journalist Anna Trubacheva. “She knows everyone there and instantly opened all the doors for us,” says Simkin. Later, Russian independent media, such as jellyfish Y midfielderwith whom he continues to analyze the next steps.
Despite the great acceptance of the project, its financing has so far rested on the shoulders of its promoters. “The word support can mean that someone says: ‘hey, I support you, I’m going to introduce you to someone!’, which is the type of help we have received. We have spoken with various investors, with various associations. Some are interested, but no one has entered so far,” says its founder.
His political backers include Republican Bill Kristol, “who has contributed enormously,” former Radio Free Europe president Jeffrey Gedmin and Russian dissident and chess master Gari Kasparov. “We’ve talked to the State Department and they’re very excited about what we’re doing,” Simkin adds. However, he makes it clear that they are independent. “I have no ties of any kind with any organization or political agenda. This is my idea, I am an engineer. I think that information leads to understanding, understanding to compassion, and compassion leads to the flourishing of humanity”, he points out.
When asked if he fears that his project will be accused of being a tool of the White House or some American philanthropist, Simkin is emphatic in stressing that he accepts donations, but does not pressure them. “If someone offers us money, I will take it with joy because I will not invite him to tell us how we should function or to give us advice. If someone wants to support free journalism, I accept the money, ”he says after sighing because“ it is inevitable to listen to conspiracy theories ”,
The organization of the Russian opposition leader Alexéi Navalni launched a mobile application last week that shares its name with Simkin’s portal and also allows you to read articles without a VPN. In this case it will include stories from the Anti-Corruption Platform and the media project, Vazhnie Istori, The Insider Y bellingcatsome of them declared “undesirable organizations” by Moscow.
Russia’s Internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, confirmed that by the end of July it had shut down more than 5,300 websites “for being subject to war censorship.” However, many more websites have joined the banned club, which includes social networks such as Facebook and Instagram (declared extremist organizations for justice), Twitter and foreign public media such as Deutsche Welle and the BBC. Other criteria, such as “the propaganda of suicide and drug use”, have justified the recent blocking of the Metacritic movie and video game ratings website.
In any case, the obstacles to accessing the independent press are compounded by Russia’s own reluctance. Only 4% of citizens trust the independent media, compared to 41% who believe the Kremlin channels, according to an August survey by the Levada center for sociological studies.
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