How Russians Are Outsmarting Internet Censorship

Pro-Navalny bloggers troll Internet regulators.

Pro-Navalny bloggers troll Internet regulators.

Mere days after several opposition websites were blocked [Global Voices report] by Russia's mass communications regulatory agency, Roskomnadzor, free speech proponents have created a unique system for circumventing censorship — and imposing counter-attacks. This approach could create problems both for censors and pro-Kremlin websites. Indeed, it seems that Russian Internet activists have taken the adage “the best defense is a good offence” to heart.

The system gained popularity when blogger Ruslan Leviev [ru] implemented the approach in order to access opposition leader Alexey Navalny's blog, which was blacklisted and blocked last year. A programmer identified as alexkbs, who first developed the system, explained in a blog post [ru] that he wanted to create a way for average users to access blocked material — a method for those who might not have the technological aptitude to use specialized services like Tor, i2p, VPN and proxy servers [ru]. This is why his approach is centered on allowing users to access blocked sites through plain old World Wide Web.

The method consists of a network of mirrors, or exact copies, of the blocked site, combined with an “active defense” mechanism. Because Roskomnadzor requires ISPs to constantly check if a resource is trying to circumvent a ban by changing its IP address, blocked resources can introduce code that redirects some of these IP queries to a different website. Eventually, goes the theory, ISPs will pick up on this redirect and block the secondary website as well. So if a blocked site is savvy enough to redirect to a government site, say, ISPs will ultimately block, a block that obviously can't stay in place for long.

This idea was put to the test on March 17, when the popular pro-government website LifeNews was banned by many ISPs [ru] through this redirection trick. The website responsible for the block was one of the mirrors of Navalny's blog. LifeNews later appealed the block to Roskomnadzor, and the mirror was unblocked as a result, proving the exploit successful at actively forcing a reversal of censorship. Leviev tweeted news of his success, posting a screenshot of the mirror removed from the Roskomnadzor registry:

Learn how to screw the system ;)

Of course, like all weapons, the redirect exploit can be used for evil as well as good — literally any website could be blocked in this way, including the website of a business competitor, for example. Roskomnadzor can also combat the exploit by creating “whitelists,” i.e. websites that should under no circumstances be blocked.

A different way to actively “screw” the system was proposed by Twitter user @unkn0wnerror, who suggested reverse blacklisting Roskomnadzor. Under this method, when regulators attempt to view one of the mirrors to Navalny's website, all they see [ru] is a full screen photo of a kitten: as seen by Roskomnadzor regulators.

Leviev and company continue to think of new ways to circumvent online censorship — for example, on March 24, Leviev announced [ru] on his blog that his team of volunteers had created a Google Chrome extension that automates the process of accessing Navalny's blog mirrors. One might question Leviev's zeal at circumventing censorship specifically for Navalny's blog. After all, Navalny's texts are also published on his Facebook account, which is easily accessible from Russia. Another extremely simple solution, suggested [ru] by Anton Nosik, is to read any blocked website through an RSS feed. One explanation is that this project is a proof of concept — a way to prepare for a grim and probable future when any opposition voice on the RuNet is in danger of being stifled.


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