The US is funding technology to allow Russian citizens to get past Russian government censors in efforts to circumvent an information crackdown related to the war in Ukraine.
The US-backed Open Technology Fund is paying out cash to a number of American companies who provide virtual private networks (VPNs). These are now seeking to allow Russians access free of charge, which aids in both accessing blocked websites and preventing Kremlin authorities from tracking IP addresses, thus better protecting online identity.
"Our tool is primarily used by people trying to access independent media, so that funding by the OTF has been absolutely critical," said a spokesman one of the involved companies, identified as Lantern.
An attorney with an information access rights group called Access Now said of the program, "It's so very important for Russians to be connected to the whole world wide web, to keep resistance going."
One firm cited in AFP receiving US government funds reported that on average 1.5 million Russians are using its tools daily, and further:
Tech firms Psiphon and nthLink have also been providing sophisticated anti-censorship applications to people in Russia, with OTF estimating that some four million users in Russia have received VPNs from the firms.
Psiphon saw a massive surge in Russian users, with the number soaring from about 48,000 a day prior to the February 24 invasion to more than a million a day by mid-March, said a company senior advisor Dirk Rodenburg.
This US program to fund companies providing VPNs to assist users living under "authoritarian regimes" has been ongoing for years, but greatly ramped up in the wake of the Ukraine invasion and short-lived attempts of Russian groups to mount protests in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
A spokesman for Lantern said that getting past Russian censors is fairly easy with the right tools, given "They weren't ready to block anything" - in reference to Kremlin authorities. "Over time, Russia learned how to block the easy stuff but Lantern and Psiphon are still up and running."
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Meanwhile, Russian officials even before the Feb.24 invasion have complained of US covert efforts to infiltrate Russian society. They have charged Washington with seeking to jump-start a "color revolution" aimed at toppling or at least weakening Vladimir Putin's rule.