YEVGENY SIMKIN

The key to this, and what makes this fundamentally different, is that this provides the people who have the impetus to go and reach this content and have the impetus to share this content with the ability to share it in a way that it actually reaches the intended targets.

[music plays]

MATT ASHBURN

Welcome to NeedleStack, the podcast for professional online research. I'm your host, Matt Ashburn.

JEFF PHILLIPS

And I'm Jeff Phillips. Today we're sitting down with Yevgeny Simkin, co founder of Samizdat Online, an anti-censorship tool that helps citizens in dictatorial regimes access news that's being blocked or censored. Yevgeny, welcome to the show!

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Thank you both so much.

MATT ASHBURN

It's great to have you here. So, so Yevgeny, you built this tool to subvert censorship by authoritarian regimes. Can you walk us through how that works and what you aim to gain from this?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Yeah, absolutely. So, it's not just a tool, but the underlying technology creates a giant distribution of completely ambiguous-looking domain names through which we pipe the content that is censored in all of these regions. The underlying objective is simply to reacquaint the citizens of the world of which about 65% live in some manner of autocratic darkness on the Internet, where their leaders deem it necessary to protect them, quote unquote, from much of what the liberal media around the world wishes for them to know. So it's a very - it just leverages the notion that information needs to be free in order for society to be free. And we simply take all the content that these autocrats ban and make it visible again to the citizens of these locales.

JEFF PHILLIPS

Can you talk a little bit about how does that look or work from a user point of view? Is that, is it something that they have to be technical to do?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Yeah, so the mechanism is rooted very much in the original Samizdad ethos, which the word comes from Soviet Russia, where people would smuggle illicit content, literature, news, obviously, but sometimes music and art. Anything else that they could get from outside the Iron Curtain, and they would make their own copies of it, and then they would distribute it to their friends and whoever else was interested, and those people would make more copies, and so on and so forth. So there was sort of a natural viral distribution mechanism. And since social media has totally introduced everybody to this in a much more banal and less informationally critical way, we're taking advantage of the fact that the vast majority of the world is now quite familiar with distributing stuff amongst themselves. And so in essence, we have a website which is just a centrally we actually employ journalists who source and look for interesting content from around the world which is banned anywhere at all. And people come to that site and they either get links directly to those sources so they will find their way to the front page of some news outlet that is banned or they will get links to specific articles that we think are worth their attention. And then those links, we provide them with the very...I mean, when I say tools, I don't want to give anybody the impression that there's anything to download or anything to install or anything like that. Tools, meaning just web tools that while they're on the web page, they push a button and they see a mechanism that lets them share it out to their social media, their email, wherever they want to share it. And then those links are sent to their recipients, and those recipients can send them on and on. And the most advantageous piece of this is that those links, once they're received, they can be clicked on by anyone, anywhere that there is an Internet connection. Those recipients do not require any additional technology to use those things.

MATT ASHBURN

That's really interesting. So Samizdad, it sounds like it's circumventing the DNS blocking by these regimes. So Russia and Belarus, for example, both rely on DNS blocking or poisoning to censor access to information. Are there any plans to adapt your technology if censorship techniques evolve over time?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

There are, of course, plans of all kinds. And we do actually, just as a bit of a lark, but also just to show that we are in fact using every possible tool to help people distribute information amongst themselves, every link that we have has a little QR code next to it. And if you tap on that QR code, it fills up your entire screen. And that way, if you're literally standing next to somebody in a nightclub or in an alley or whatever, they can just scan your phone and go to that website. So that isn't a direct answer to your question, but it indicates our larger drive to circumvent all of these initiatives by these autocrats in every way we can. The beautiful thing about DNS I don't know to what extent your audience knows what that is, but I'll let you tell me if you want me to do a little bit of a tech lesson. But the beautiful thing about DNS and Internet technology writ large is that it's reasonably straightforward and pretty simple in the grand scheme of things. And so the autocrats are actually quite limited in what they can do and what technology they can bring to bear to thwart their citizens from visiting whatever it is they don't want them to visit unless they are willing to simply turn the Internet off. I mean, that is...there's a...they have a big lever and they can just shut the Internet off in their nation, and then their citizens can't get to the internet at all. That is essentially what's happening in North Korea, which is our one, kind of, it's the one place we really cannot operate and have very few ideas as to what we could do. Additionally, in North Korea, the citizens are subjected to such unbelievable punishment for any violation of anything. I wouldn't want it on my soul to put anything in anybody's hands that could get them punished as badly as North Korea punishes people. But in most places, that's not how it works. In most places, the Internet does exist to some degree, and so the blocking of DNS is pretty much the only thing that the government can do. And for various technical reasons, blacklisting domain names in particular is pretty much the only thing they can do if they go to a whitelist. And again, just let me know. I'll detail it to whatever degree you want. In terms of exposition, whitelists are kind of unworkable and present additional overwhelming problems for the regime that, you know, to make a long story short, that's just not what they're going to do, so blacklisting DNS is basically their entire bag of tricks.

JEFF PHILLIPS

Shifting a little bit from the technology - so, I was on the site, you have a lot of different publications and articles. Can you tell us a little bit, you know, was it hard to convince these sources or these publications to work directly with you or grant you permission to syndicate these articles?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

It was actually unbelievably easy once we had the right ears, and that seems to be the case for most of media. So for example, we have yet to reach the New York Times, for example, or the Guardian. These are very difficult places for us to penetrate, and so I don't believe anybody there has either heard about us or knows that we're kind of desperately trying to get through to them to get their permission to do this. Meanwhile, the publications that are in - so, just to be clear, we started in Russia because it has a personal connection for me, as my name might suggest, I'm from there originally, and I have engineers who work for me who are there and in Ukraine, and so this was all a very, you know, it was a very personal project initially, and then once we launched it, we quickly realized that Russia is by no means the only place on earth where this is needed. And so just recently, we ventured into Iran. We're obviously heading towards China at some point in the not-too-distant future. But the way that it worked is that until I got in touch with our executive producers, Stas Kutcher and our editor in chief, Anna Trubachova, I didn't know them until I started this project, and so I thought, oh, I'll just try and reach these publications myself with no direct linking to them. And that didn't work at all. It was just as hard, we were unable to resume. But the moment that these two fine individuals joined our team, everything felt like dominoes, because they know these publications, they know the people who ran them, run them, and the moment that these publications found out that we existed, they very eagerly asked us to please participate, to help distribute them to the world. So at this point, we actually have many publications reaching out to us without us reaching out. The direction of who's asking whom for what has now shifted, where several times a week we will receive requests on our website to unblock, have people join us and stuff, which has been very heartening.

JEFF PHILLIPS

That's great. It comes to them, they buy into the greater good portion of it, you know, as compared to some of us who can be cynical with media, news, and it's all ad driven and things like that, but hopefully they came at it from a greater-good perspective.

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Well, I think I don't want to attach too many aspersions about incentives. I understand how people make their money, but their incentive is that they're simply not seen like they were shut down, right? So one day they had an audience of some millions of viewers per month and the next day they had no audience or that audience was cut by 80% or whatnot. I think Medusa said that when they were cut off, their audience went from 20 million to five or something like that. SoC that's a substantial loss. And they were very, very eager for us to we were careful with the words indicate that people know that word to mean something very particular as it relates to financial agreements and stuff. So we just use the word unblock for now because there really is no word that truly describes what we're doing. So we're unblocking.

MATT ASHBURN

I'm wondering there are other tools out there that have tried to combat censorship in different ways. So for example, Tor is one of those, of course. Can you talk a bit about the approach that you've taken and how it differs from tools like Tor?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Yeah, absolutely. So VPN and Tor are fantastic tools in their own right for specific access to specific things or for anonymizing your personality to some extent, or whatever they do. The key difference for us is that the nature of the way that the propaganda works in everywhere but certainly in Russia, is that the people who are keen to use Tor or keen to use VPN are people who are already most likely reasonably well-informed. And so, if my core objective is to reacquaint the population with ideas that they are being protected from and to grant them an entry point, that entry point is almost certainly going to come from their friends and neighbors and people they trust. But if somebody sends you something and says, here, take a look at this, but in order to take a look at this, first install this VPN or grab a Tor browser or whatever, the odds that you're going to do that are basically zero. So the key to this, and what makes this fundamentally different is that this provides the people who have the impetus to go and reach this content and have the impetus to share this content with the ability to share it in a way that it actually reaches the intended targets. So that there's the possibility that people who are not personally driven and not personally inclined to go seeking this information will wind up in front of it anyway. And then I'm not naive. I understand that just clicking on a link, especially in the media environment which we live now, everybody is basically prepared to denounce everything as fake news and to assume that there's nothing but bad faith actors in every corner of what they deem mainstream. Like, mainstream media is a dirty word, but my belief is that there has to be a point at which you just introduce some doubt into what is otherwise a completely hermetically sealed world view. And the moment that doubt exists, I mean, that's where everything starts. You start with a little bit of doubt, and then people will gradually come off of the deep freeze that they're in will start to thaw. It's my hope. I mean, maybe I'm naive and maybe we're doomed, but I got to do something.

JEFF PHILLIPS

I don't think you're doomed. And I get it that people are doubting everywhere, but hopefully opening yourself up or opening people up to many more sources, even if you're the type that checks all sources to get different perspectives, has got to be useful. But I know it's early days. Can you tell yet? Do you feel like your work is having an impact on the war in Ukraine? Whether that's disrupting narratives or enabling people to start communicating in certain ways, can you tell yet if you're having any impact?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

There's really no way to measure direct impact. And honestly, until we start hearing specific anecdotes of maybe specific soldiers who clicked on a link and saw something that changed their mind about they were going to do this, they decided to do that, those kinds of stories are extremely hard to come by. Sure. And I don't doubt that that happens. I don't know if it's because of us. I don't doubt that it happens. In general, I'm extremely driven to add to the mix, you know, so more is more, as they say. So the service is being utilized with some reasonably serious gusto, by our estimation, simply because we have not promoted it yet. We've basically just launched it. And so we're being very careful about how we introduce it to the world because we need to be sure that we're ready to withstand both the massive traffic that we're going to encounter once people start using it to view everything that we are unblocking. Right. Because if you aggregate all of this unblockable content and then run it through our servers, which they need to do, then we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of business to what is essentially us, even though it's ultimately not us, right? We're just the intermediary, but we still have to be able to manage all that traffic. And then, of course, I don't actually believe that the Russian nazar or the Iranian mullahs or anybody else has caught wind of us yet, but when they do, they're going to come after us with a fury as well, right? And then that game of whacka Mole will begin, and we'll have to be sure that we can stay ahead of them. So because we are very young and unfunded at this point and we're very scrappy, but there's a lot to be done, and we're doing our best to roll things out as quickly as possible. So we're very careful as to the rate at which we venture into the world. So we haven't been doing any advertising. And so in terms of how who knows about us and what kind of traffic it's generated, we put up a link on a public interest kind of it's not even a news site. It's a site in Belarus called Cuckoo, which is just lifestyle publication, essentially. And they had traffic, I don't want to lie, but I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million users or something like that. I'm afraid to say the wrong numbers, but it's something like that. And based on what we're seeing, essentially all of their users came to us or something like that, right. Even though all they did was on their front page, they put up a notice that please use this service to get to us. And everyone has. So if that's any kind of indication of how this will be utilized by the wider globe, then all I can say is, oh, my God.

JEFF PHILLIPS

Yes. That is definitely what you should think. Absolutely.

MATT ASHBURN

Yeah. So Yevgeny, as we start to wrap up today, what would you like to leave the audience with? What final thought would you like to have?

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Oh, my God, so many final thoughts. Well, okay, so I have my main final point is that I wish everybody would take the temperature down on everything a lot. I think that there's the way that we consume our media drives, our cortisol and obey, that everybody has been constantly ginned up and in a frenzy about everything. And as Jeff mentioned earlier, the incentives of the media is in fact, to do exactly that, because that's exactly how they get people to click on things, and that's how they make their money. But that creates an environment which I refer to as the age of Babble, where there is absolutely no there's absolutely no trust in anything because there's just too much. There's such an overwhelming fire hose of information from every side, and anybody who's looking to validate something or verify something or try to get to the bottom of something quickly finds that even when they're at the bottom of whatever it is, they're still, quote unquote, experts in whatever it is that vehemently disagree with each other, right? For example, I can't be an expert in anything but my craft, right? There's just too many things in which to be an expert. And so when people when people turn to other experts for whatever it is that they have to trust them, and their expertise, they find that there isn't a consensus there and then they feel hopeless, right? And so when this pertains to what's the best coffee to drink, there's nothing really at stake, but when this pertains to what's the best treatment for your colon cancer, then things become a little more dicey and everything in between. So my wish, I don't know if it's my advice, but my wish is that people would just take everything with a grain of salt, but at the same time not ascribe malice to everything, and assume that there's a lot of incompetence, but also there's a lot of goodwill. And most people just want what's best. When people say, we're really divided, we're not really divided. Most people want more or less exactly the same thing, right? They want their kids to have a better life than they did. They want to feel safe when they go out into the streets. They want to not worry that tomorrow there's going to be a famine or another pandemic or that someone's going to drop a bomb on their head. Those are pretty universal desires. So I just wish everybody would tone it down and give each other a big hug and then stop it with all of this. I know that sounds like naive and cliche and banal, but I don't know.

MATT ASHBURN

No, no, I was saying, I think that's a fantastic thought to end on there. So I really do appreciate it and thank you very much for joining us today.

YEVGENY SIMKIN

Thank you both for inviting me and spreading the word about our product. And, you know, let's make the world a better place.

MATT ASHBURN

That sounds great. And for those folks at home, if you liked what you heard, you can always subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. You can also watch episodes of our show on YouTube and view transcripts and other information on our website at authentic8.com/needlestack. That's authentic with the number eight dot com slash needlestack. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter @needlestackpod. And we'll be back next time with more on fact checking and debunking. We'll see you then.

Authoritarian regimes create propaganda and disinformation, in part, by blocking citizens’ access to traditional news sources. In this episode, co-founder of Samizdat Online, Yevgeny Simkin, walks us through how their program works in partnership with outlets to syndicate articles to bypass censorship in Russia and other countries — to get citizens and researchers the information they need.

Key takeaways

  • Authoritarian censorship is fueled by "DNS blocking"
  • How to circumvent DNS blocking
  • Disinformation techniques in Russia and other autocratic regimes

About Yevgeny

Yevgeny Simkin is a Russian-born technologist and writer whose belief that information should always be freely available prompted him to found Samizdat Online. Samizdat Online’s technology makes it possible to bypass the DNS blockades set up by autocratic regimes and to once again view and share all content from around the globe without the need for a VPN. Samizdat Online also operates a news website, Samizdatonline.org that curates the most prominent news stories from the digital publications they are unblocking in five languages, with more soon to be added.

How to find Samizdat Online

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