Russia has reportedly blocked access to Western media, including the BBC, from internet users inside its borders, amid growing suspicions that the country has begun to implement a ‘splinternet’ plan to cut itself off from the internet. internet at large.
This morning, the British state broadcaster said it had been blocked from inside Russia, using the also-blocked Twitter to spread the news among Westerners, and alerted netizens to a long-forgotten Tor mirror. The BBC launched two new shortwave frequencies in the region earlier this week to broadcast four hours of English-language World Service news a day. These frequencies can be received clearly in Kyiv and parts of Russia.
Although the Reuters financial newswire cited an order from Roskomnadzor, the Russian equivalent of UK media regulator Ofcom, Roskomnadzor blocked sites checker did not return any information to BBC.com when verified by The register at the time of writing.
El Reg‘s own connectivity tests, as well as those of informed sources, however, suggested that the blocking had genuinely been implemented.
A Russian government spokesman said Reuters: “Access has been restricted to a host of information resources held by foreigners.”
Roskomnadzor’s “news” page is full of demands that mostly American social media sites stop blocking Russian news and disinformation agencies such as Russia Today (RT).
Yesterday, the agency also complained that YouTube ads intended to “misinform the Russian Internet audience” were not “age-labeled”, which apparently violates local Russian law. (The main reason Russia blocks Western news sites is that President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want his people to know he started a war on their behalf.)
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Hosted at https://www.bbcnewsd73hkzno2ini43t4gblxvycyac5aw4gnv7t2rccijh7745uqd.onion/, the BBC Tor domain appears to be a simple copy of the BBC.com homepage. The site was created in 2019; the domain on the link above will only work with the Tor browser.
Similarly, the BBC’s press office urged netizens to publicize Tor and the open-source VPN Psiphon.
Tips for accessing BBC News pic.twitter.com/QXrjljM5sJ
— BBC Press Office (@bbcpress) March 4, 2022
Russia’s response to this open call to avoid censorship, if any, will be instructive. Although the BBC’s Tor mirror of its clearnet operation has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world since its launch, this is the precise use case that Tor’s creators envisioned: keeping information flowing despite state censorship efforts.
While Beeb has coyly labeled his site as being on the “deep web”, it is actually on what the state broadcaster previously called the “dark web” – that is, the same “web dark” used by Russian-aligned ransomware gangs. and similar online criminals to host their leak blogs.
Tor is designed to thwart censorship by bouncing user traffic through a number of relay nodes, disguising its true origins and destinations. If the Russians tried to shut down websites hosted by Western Tor, they would likely fail – but previous efforts to shut down local exit node operators have paid off.
Tor exit relays have long been a target, not only for law enforcement in the West as well as authoritarian countries, but also for those who would register and track exit node users – and, inevitably, scammers. of cryptocurrency.
As for Russia’s broader internet blocking ambitions, although hard facts are hard to come by, Russia and like-minded authoritarian countries are quietly building so-called splinternets – local versions of Internet protected by firewalls – for years. Also referred to as “digital balkanization”, the Russian version is known as Runet. Work began on Runet in 2014, culminating in a full-scale test in 2019.
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Project Runet is overseen by Natalya Kasperskaya – co-founder of the antivirus company that bears her married name, as well as the ex-wife of its CEO Eugene. The idea behind Runet is that Internet-dependent services in Russia can continue to operate while non-Russian resources are completely blocked. So far there is conflicting evidence as to whether the Runet switch has been launched – tests carried out this morning by El Reg showed that the Google Play Store and Apple Store landing pages were both accessible, while mil-dot-ru (the Russian Ministry of Defense) was inaccessible from an unfiltered internet connection in London.
If Russia activates Runet, not only will its population immediately notice the loss of connectivity with services hosted in the West, but they will also have to turn to Tor – a modern form of samizdat – for reliable news and information. At this point, it may not just be the BBC deploying Tor mirrors of news websites. ®