Anti-censorship activist Yevgeny Simkin is determined to find new ways to help people who live in dictatorial regimes access information from a variety of sources.
OSINT researchers rely on open sources — information that’s available and accessible to everyone. But in many countries around the world, information is anything but open. In 2016, Freedom House’s study stated that nearly two-thirds of the internet users around the world lived under censorship, lacking the ability to access media sources that fall outside of the “official” narrative of their government or military regimes.
Unfortunately, in the eight years since the study was first released, the situation only got worse. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, countless media outlets have been blocked, and journalists who dare to disagree with the government’s point of view in countries like Russia and Belarus are facing widespread prosecution.
With online censorship continuing to crack down on freedom of press, activists like Yevgeny Simkin are finding new ways to give both readers and researchers access to blocked media. His latest project — Samizdat Online — is designed to subvert censorship and help people who live in dictatorial regimes access information from a variety of sources. Simkin is a firm believer that for a society to be truly free, information needs to be freely accessible.
We sat down with Simkin on our NeedleStack podcast to talk about his mission to take online content that’s been banned by autocrats and open it up to the citizens it was hidden from.
Samizdat: old Soviet tactics meet modern content sharing practices
The word Samizdat roughly translates from Russian as “self-publishing.” The practice came to life during the Soviet era, when people would smuggle illicit content like articles, publications, even entire novels — anything they could get from the outside of the iron curtain — and make copies, sometimes by hand, to pass on to their like-minded friends. In Soviet times, the punishment for possessing and distributing banned content was often swift and cruel, but it didn’t deter many dissidents and even ordinary citizens from wanting to consume content that fell outside of the official party-sanctioned propaganda.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent advent of (relative) freedoms and civil liberties, the need for Samizdat waned. But lately, Russia has been increasingly clamping down on alternative viewpoints and even imprisoning journalists who dare to speak their mind, prompting advocates of free speech like Simkin to resurrect the idea of banned content distribution, while infusing it with modern technology and social media sharing practices.
How Samizdat Online works
Samizdat dodges censorship by registering and hosting large quantities of random domains that people can use to access banned media. It employs several journalists who comb the internet looking for banned publications and “unblocks” their content using new websites. Simkin prefers to use the term “unblock” rather than “syndicate,” because syndication implies financial relationships between parties; his service doesn’t charge to connect people to sources of information.
Even at this early stage, Samizdat has given readers access to more than a dozen blocked publications in Russia and Belarus, even though Simkin has not yet started promoting the new service and is still in the process of ramping up the server capacity to handle what he hopes would become hundreds of millions of visitors.
For now, Simkin is trying to keep a low profile to stay under the radar of authoritarian governments. He believes that although the censorship machine is outdated and bureaucratic, and DNS blocking is the only reliable technique that they have at their disposal, it’s better to not provoke the full wrath of powerful dictatorial regimes. Samizdat is also sensitive to severe punishments that certain governments are willing to inflict upon their citizens for having access to banned content; and has made a conscious decision not to operate in places like North Korea (which also largely blocks citizens’ access to the internet) to protect both the company’s personnel and its readers from retaliation.
Access without download or install
Samizdat is not the only service that’s trying to give people a mechanism for sharing banned media. Both OSINT researchers and ordinary citizens around the world use common anti-censorship tools like VPN and Tor to gain access to sites that their governments ban under the guise of “protecting” the country’s people. Major international news outlets like BBC and New York Times have launched mirror sites on the dark web to help readers in oppressed countries gain access to their content.
But a key advantage of Samizdat is that there’s no software to download or add-ons to install. Users simply click on links and can share articles with friends — no technical knowledge required. Simkin believes that people who go out of their way to install Tor or connect through a VPN are already aware of the existence of alternative sources of information. His main audience are citizens whose viewpoints are formed entirely based on government’s propaganda. He hopes that a simple link to an article shared by a trusted friend could sow even the smallest seed of doubt in their minds, that maybe they shouldn’t believe everything they hear on state-sponsored media. And that seed can grow into a curiosity about what else might be out there. This is why Samizdat places a premium on simple ways of sharing information. As long as there’s an internet connection, anyone can click and share their links.
Samizdat’s pages even contain QR codes to help people distribute information in wider circles. Every article has a QR code that can be magnified to fill a phone screen, so a person standing next to the reader can simply scan the code and get access to the article on their own device.
Reacquainting the world with different viewpoints
Simkin has ambitious plans for Samizdat Online, including expanding the service to China and ramping up its operations in Russia and Belarus. However, he is aware of the challenges that lie ahead, including funding to cover the cost of servers and spinning up and registering multiple domains, and staying alive in the game of whack-a-mole with Russia’s censorship arm, Roskomnadzor (Russian Communications Control). But he is not wavering in his mission — to introduce even the smallest doubts to people who live within a hermetically sealed bubble of their own worldview, which has been carefully crafted by their governments’ propaganda machines. That’s the spark he hopes to light. He wishes that people would open their minds just a bit more and see that there’s more than one way to interpret any event or story. It’s often difficult, even impossible, to find the truth, but it’s important to keep looking.
Listen to the full recording of Simkin’s episode here.
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