How to circumvent state internet censorship in Russia
Relief supplies, medicine, monetary donations — people across the world have exhibited an enormous willingness to help Ukrianians. But what people in occupied territories of Ukraine and in Russia most urgently need is free access to uncensored information on the Internet.
The websites of the BBC and Deutsche Welle have been blocked since March 4. When users try to access the news organizations' websites, connection to the server appears broken or websites pop up featuring references to a block by the Russian supervisory authority.
However, there are a few ways to bypass these blocks. The use of VPN apps in Russia has skyrocketed.
'Layers of onion' protect Tor
Tor software offers a way to pass through censorship while protecting your privacy. The name is short for "The Onion Routing" — which describes precisely what makes Tor so secure.
The software uses many layers of encryption, which wrap around every individual internet connection like an onion skin. Neither the content of your internet activity nor the target addresses can be viewed, making it impossible for state censorship authorities to distinguish between permitted and prohibited websites.
Tor is easy to use. You just need the Tor Browser, which is as easy to navigate and install as any other internet browser.
Although the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor blocked the servers of the Tor network a few months ago, Tor is still being accessed in the country — proving that anyone who thinks information-craving Russians aren't savvy enough to bypass this barrier is mistaken.
The firewall doesn't see the melting snowflake
People in Russia can use Tor once again thanks to some 25,000 volunteers across the world who installed a small plugin in their Chrome or Firefox browser called a "Snowflake proxy."
The large number of these proxies make it impossible for censorship authority firewalls to block them all. That means that despite the censorship measures, users can continue accessing the Internet via Snowflake proxies.
The censorship authorities are unable to prevent this because the mostly private internet connections of the volunteers who operate a Snowflake proxy change their IP addresses within a few days.
The detectability of these proxies disappears like a melting snowflake — hence the name.
The benefit of these Snowflakes is well-proven. Currently some 40,000 connections to the uncensored Tor network have been established in Russia.
Anyone can take part in Project Snowflake
Anyone who wants to support the system can help by installing a Snowflake plugin, said Jens Kubieziel, honorary board member of the German association Onion Friends e.V., which has been helping people communicate securely for many years.
"Through this method, people can receive functional internet access and freely inform themselves," he said.
But are there any risks or disadvantages to taking part in the project?
Kubieziel says not to worry.
"There's no risk for people who provide the connection," he said. "From the outside, it's impossible to recognize which connections are open or forwarded. Even if people who use the Snowflake system take part in some sort of abuse, it won't come back to people hosting the networks. The load on your own internet line is also kept within limits."
Overall, Snowflake is a simple and effective way to help people receive uncensored information on the internet.
Edited by: Carla Bleiker