Hiding truth: Russia creates nationwide internet outage by blocking access to Google and Yandex, Russia finally turned into hermit kingdom

Weapons plants targeted by kamikaze drones, rebellions in an oil-producing region and power outages in -30°C temperatures – Russia seems to be ruled by chaos just weeks before the presidential elections.

Apart from pushing with his war in Ukraine and keeping close relationships with allies North Korea and China, Vladimir Putin is now faced with the largest Internet meltdown ever.

People from all corners of the country were reporting issues accessing giants like Google and Yandex.

Sites with the .ru domain were unavailable for hours on Tuesday, including those of banks and news companies. It was initially unclear if the failure was entirely domestic – or an external attack.

It came as Putin is seeking to isolate the Russian web from the West, limiting the access of his people to outside influences.

‌There was no advance warning of the chaos but Russia did not initially blame the widespread outage on foreign interference.

The e-mayhem lasted at least an hour and a half and covered all 11 time zones in Russia from the Baltic to the Pacific.

Cash registers linked to the country’s biggest bank Sberbank – which operates the largest payments system – failed in supermarkets.

‌Queues formed in stores and screens announced: ‘One of our services is not yet available’ and ‘Loyalty card discounts cannot be applied.’

‌’The Internet is broken,’ complained users. ‌The Kremlin’s own site was temporarily hit as were other Russian government sites.

Andrey Vorobyov, director of the Domain Coordination Centre, confirmed their dedication to resolving the technical problem.

‌’We are working on a technical problem, I can’t talk now,’ said Vorobyov. ‌The Ministry of Digital Development insisted: “In the near future, access to sites in the .ru zone will be restored.

‌’A technical issue has occurred affecting the .RU zone associated with the global DNSSEC infrastructure.’

U.S. funds VPN for Russians

The US government has pushed new, increased funding into three technology companies since the start of the Ukraine conflict to help Russians sidestep censors and access Western media, according to five people familiar with the situation.

The financing effort is focused on three firms that build Virtual Private Networks (VPN) – nthLink, Psiphon and Lantern – and is designed to support a recent surge in their Russian users, the sources said.

VPNs help users hide their identity and change their online location, often to bypass geographic restrictions on content or to evade government censorship technology.

Reuters spoke to executives at all three US government-backed VPNs and two officials at a US government-funded nonprofit organization that provided them with financing – the Open Technology Fund (OTF) – who said the anti-censorship apps have seen significant growth in Russia since President Vladimir Putin launched his war in Ukraine on 24 February.

Between 2015 and 2021, the three VPNs received at least $4.8 million in US funding, according to publicly available funding documents reviewed by Reuters. Since February, the total funding allocated to the companies has increased by almost half in order to cope with the rise in demand in Russia, the five people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The funding flows through the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) – a federal agency that oversees US government-backed broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – as well as via the Washington-based OTF, which is funded entirely by the US government and overseen by the USAGM.

Laura Cunningham, president of the OTF, said the organization had increased its support to the three VPNs because “the Russian government is attempting to censor what their citizens can see and say online in order to obscure the truth and silence dissent.”

Censorship evasion tools, including the VPNs, backed by OTF averaged more than 4 million users last month in Russia, Cunningham added.

In a statement, USAGM also said it was supporting the development of a range of censorship circumvention tools, including VPNs. It also did not give precise data on their funding.

“With the Kremlin’s escalating crackdown on media freedom, we’ve seen an extraordinary surge in demand for these tools among Russians,” USAGM spokesperson Laurie Moy said.

Russia’s foreign ministry did not respond to an emailed request for comment. In a statement, the Kremlin rejected allegations of online censorship: “We don’t censor the Internet. Russia regulates certain Web resources, like many other countries in the world.”

Martin Zhu, director of engineering at nthLink, said his app’s daily users in Russia had recently soared after it was promoted heavily by US government-funded news websites such as Voice of America: “The graph went from 1,000 one day to 10,000 the next day, to 30,000 the day after that, to 50,000 and straight up.”

VPN Crackdown

The demand for VPNs in Russia skyrocketed in March when Moscow introduced restrictions on some foreign social media, including Facebook and Instagram.

On the eve of the ban, VPN demand spiked 2,088% higher than the daily average demand in mid-February, data from London-based monitoring firm Top10VPN showed.

“The need to look for a VPN arose with the blocks on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” said a resident of Oryol, a city 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow, who declined to give his full name for fear of retribution.

He said that while he could access social media in Moscow, when he returned to Oryol they were blocked. “Then I came across Psiphon and strangely enough it worked in both Moscow and Oryol: no glitches; always connected.”

Authorities in Moscow and Oryol did not respond to requests for comment.

Though interest in VPNs has recently eased somewhat, daily usage is still up 452% on average compared to the week before war broke out, according to Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN.

“We conservatively estimate that at least 6 million VPNs have been installed since the invasion,” Migliano said.

Russia’s population is around 144 million, with an estimated 85% having access to the Internet, according to World Bank data from 2020.

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