This Clever Anti-Censorship Tool Lets Russians Read Blocked News

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: 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 (again, followed by encoded data). Another click takes me to the domain:

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.