September 30, 2023


Unlimited Technology

What the internet looks like for Russians right now

Vladimir Putin (2017 photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) holds an iPhone as his spokesman Dmitry Peskov (R) looks on prior to a bilateral meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (not pictured) on November 10,2017 in Da Nang, Vietnam.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

  • Facebook, Instagram, the BBC, and many other sites are blocked by the Russian state and Russian ISPs.

  • Russians who try and access these sites from Russia without a VPN will run into error messages.

  • This is the “splinternet” in action.

Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war.

Eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, its communications agency Roskomnadzor cut off access to foreign news sites including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America. It also banned Facebook, which chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg attributed to the firm’s fact-checks of Russian state media posts.

Roskomnadzor went on to ban Instagram for the country’s 80 million users, sending shockwaves across Russia’s influencer industry. Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office asked a court to designate Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, as an extremist organization.

This is a real-time example of the so-called “splinternet,” said Andrew Sullivan, president of the Internet Society lobby group.

Russia’s bans mark “the splintering of the internet along geographical, political, commercial, and/or technological boundaries” he said, and are “the antithesis of how the internet was designed and meant to function.”

Russia’s internet was not totally free before the invasion. LinkedIn is banned, and TikTok was already censored. But state censorship has escalated with the war, as the Kremlin attempts to hide the fact that the war hasn’t so far gone as planned from Russia’s estimated 122 million internet users.

WhatsApp is still working in the country. After YouTube, the messaging service is the most widely used social media site in the country: over 65% of Russian internet users are active on the platform monthly, according to data from eMarketer.

To see what the internet looks like for users inside Russia, Insider tracked the DNS rejections of various Russian ISPs, using the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) explorer. Insider worked with OONI’s researchers as well as analysts at Top10VPN who were able to take a look at what the BBC news site looks like in Russia using the Astrill Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Russia censors websites in different ways according to OONI, issuing a list of sites to internet providers to block themselves or throttling services “in a centralized way.” In practice, Russians can circumvent blocks through VPNs, meaning censorship will be piecemeal.

Here’s how Russia’s internet will look for those without a VPN:

A Russian user trying to visit Facebook without a VPN might see the below block page.

Error page, In Russian. Translated, it reads: "Access Denied. Access to this page is prohibited, because it was included in the "Unified Register of Prohibited Sites" ,  containing information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in the Russian Federation,  or in the "Federal List of Extremist Materials" on the website of the Ministry of Justice."

An error message for a Russian IP address attempting to access FacebookRosie Bradbury

When Insider visited blocked sites, they mostly displayed the same thing: An apologetic message explaining the site is inaccessible, and pointing users to various Russian state block lists and official webpages.

There isn’t much else by way of explanation, and no apparent references to the invasion (which Russia describes as a “special operation.”)

When a Russian device attempts to access Facebook, an error message shows up that reads: “Access Denied. Access to this page is prohibited, because it was included in the “Unified Register of Prohibited Sites”, containing information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in the Russian Federation, or in the “Federal List of Extremist Materials” on the website of the Ministry of Justice.”

(We used Google Translate’s machine-learning for translation — so translations may not be precise.)

Other blocked sites display similar messages.

Instagram is likewise blocked.

An error page for a Russian user who tries to access

An error page for a Russian user who tries to access Bradbury

Instagram is popular in Russia, and influencers there have built up millions of followers. In the run-up to its block on Monday, Russian influencers posted tearful videos bidding followers goodbye.

Olga Buzova, with 23.3 million Instagram followers, posted a nearly seven-minute video on Sunday. “I am not afraid of admitting that I do not want t
o lose you,” she said in Russian, sobbing.

Buzova and her fellow Instagram users in Russia are now likely to an error page when they try and access the service. It reads: “We apologize, but THIS RESOURCE IS LOCKED by decision of state authorities.”

The first paragraph of the body text adds: “A UNIFIED REGISTER of domain names, Internet site page indexes and network addresses containing information whose dissemination is prohibited in the Russian Federation.”

The page goes on to direct users to the broadcast regulator Roskomnadzor and the Ministry of Justice’s list of banned websites.

The BBC website is blocked as of March 4.

An error page for a Russian user who tries to access

An error page for a Russian user who tries to access, taken on March 10 using Astrill VPN.Top10VPN

Russia has a fraught relationship with independent and foreign media, periodically banning individual journalists and outlets.

Russia has not banned journalists — yet — although it has made reporting conditions tougher.

As of March 4, it’s blocked the BBC news site.

For some users who try to access the BBC, they get an error message back: “Dear Subscriber! Access to an Internet resource blocked by decision of state authorities. You can see the reason for blocking in the unified registry.”

Error message in Russian for BBC, with a stock photo of three smiling faces.

Another error message for users trying to access the BBC’s coverage of UkraineRosie Bradbury

A different block page that appears when Russians attempt to access the BBC reads: “Access to the information resource is limited on the basis of the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection.”

Independent media such as Current Time TV (Radio Free Europe) is also blocked.

Error Message for Current Time TV, an independent news service in Russia in collaboration with Radio Free Europe

Error Message for Current Time TV, an independent news service in Russia in collaboration with Radio Free EuropeRosie Bradbury

This is the error page some users in Russia will get back when they try to access the independent Russian news outlet Current Time TV, a partner of Radio Free Europe. It reads: “Dear subscriber! This resource is blocked.”

It continues, “Access to the site is restricted in accordance with Federal Laws No. 114-FZ of July 25, 2002 (On countering extremist activity), No. 436-FZ of December 29, 2010 (On protecting children from information harmful to their health and development), No. 149- Federal Law of July 27, 2006 (On information, information technologies and information protection) and Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation of October 26, 2012 No. 1101.”

Users are told to “contact the authorized representatives of Roskomnadzor and the Ministry of Justice.”

The site for independent Russian news site Meduza now displays a 404 error.

404 Not Found Error page

For many websites in Russia, users will be redirected to a 404 page.Rosie Bradbury

For a number of other blocked websites, users will just be sent to a error page, rather than a page to indicate that the website has been blocked because of state censors. That’s the case for many users to try to access Meduza, another Russian-language independent news site which has been reporting accurately on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Demand for VPNs in Russia spiked over 2,000% after the invasion.

VPN logo

A VPN logo seen on a smartphone.Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Like plenty of internet users in China, Russians are circumventing censors with tools like VPNs and the private Tor browser. Demand for VPNs, which obscure a user’s actual IP address, jumped 2,000% on the eve of the country’s Instagram ban, according to Top10VPN.

Metrics firm SensorTower logged a new peak for Russians looking for VPNs on Monday, at a 2,692% spike in demand for VPNs in the week prior to the Ukraine invasion.

But secure VPNs can be costly and Russian internet users who aren’t tech savvy may not think to use them, so instead they’re facing a growing number of error pages and a dearth of independent news coverage of the invasion.

It leaves Russians cut off from multiple means of global communication and information sharing, and more vulnerable to disinformation about the war disseminated by the Kremlin.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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