War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky Internet controls

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Belarus' counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 11, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 14 March 2022
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War censorship exposes Putin’s leaky Internet controls

  • Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war

BOSTON: Long before waging war on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin was working to make Russia’s Internet a powerful tool of surveillance and social control akin to China’s so-called Great Firewall.
So when Western tech companies began cutting ties with Russia following its invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov was alarmed. He’d spent years exposing Russian censorship and feared that well-intentioned efforts to aid Ukraine would instead help Putin isolate Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war.
“Look, guys the only space the Russians have to talk about Ukraine. and what is going on in Russia. is Facebook,” Soldatov, now exiled in London. wrote on Facebook in the war’s first week. “You cannot just, like, kill our access.”
Facebook didn’t, although the Kremlin soon picked up that baton, throttling both Facebook and Twitter so badly they are effectively unreachable on the Russian Internet. Putin has also blocked access to both Western media and independent news sites in the country, and a new law criminalizes spreading information that contradicts the government’s line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram.
Yet the Kremlin’s latest censorship efforts have also revealed serious shortcomings in the government’s bigger plans to straightjacket the Internet. Any Russian with a modicum of tech smarts can circumvent Kremlin efforts to starve Russians of fact.
That puts providers of Internet bandwidth and associated services sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight in a tough spot. On one side, they face public pressure to punish the Russian state and economic reasons to limit services at a time when bills might well go unpaid. On the other, they’re wary of helping stifle a free flow of information that can counter Kremlin disinformation — for instance, the state’s claim that Russia’s military is heroically “liberating” Ukraine from fascists.
Amazon Web Services, a major provider of cloud computing services, continues to operate in Russia, although it says it’s not taking on any new customers. Both Cloudflare, which helps shield websites from denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which boosts site performance by putting Internet content closer to its audience, also continue to serve their Russian customers, with exceptions including cutting off state-owned companies and firms under sanctions.
Microsoft, by contrast, hasn’t said whether it will halt its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.
US-based Cogent, which provides a major “backbone” for Internet traffic, has cut direct connections inside Russia but left open the pipes through subsidiaries of Russian network providers at exchanges physically outside the country. Another major US backbone provider, Lumen, has done the same.
“We have no desire to cut off Russian individuals and think that an open Internet is critical to the world,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said in an interview. Direct connections to servers inside Russia, he said, could potentially “be used for offensive cyber efforts by the Russian government.”
Schaeffer said the decision didn’t reflect “financial considerations,” although he acknowledged that the ruble’s sharp drop, which makes imported goods and services more expensive in Russia, could make it difficult to collect customer payments. Meanwhile, he said, Cogent is providing Ukrainian customers free service during the conflict.
Schaeffer said these moves might impair Internet video in Russia but will leave plenty of bandwidth for smaller files.
Other major backbone providers in Europe and Asia also continue to serve Russia, a net importer of bandwidth, said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for the network management firm Kentik. He has noted no appreciable drop in connectivity from outside providers.
Cloudflare continues to operate four data centers in Russia even though Russian authorities ordered government websites to drop foreign-owned hosting providers as of Friday. In a March 7 blog post the company said it had determined “Russia needs more Internet access, not less.”
Under a 2019 “sovereign Internet” law, Russia is supposed to be able to operate its Internet independent of the rest of the world. In practice, that has brought Russia closer to the kind of intensive Internet monitoring and control practiced by China and Iran.
Its telecommunications oversight agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system at scale a year ago when it throttled access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middleboxes — router-like devices run and remotely controlled by bureaucrats that can block individual websites and services — installed by law at all Internet providers inside Russia.
But the system, which also lets the FSB security service spy on Russian citizens, is a relative sieve compared to China’s Great Firewall. Andrew Sullivan, president of the nonprofit Internet Society, said there’s no evidence it has the ability to successfully disconnect Russia from the wider Internet.
“Walling off a country’s Internet is complicated, culturally, economically and technologically. And it becomes far more complicated with a country like Russia, whose Internet, unlike China’s, was not originally built out with government control in mind,” he said.
“When it comes to censorship, the only ones who can really do it are the Chinese,” said Serge Droze, a senior security engineer at Swiss-based Proton Technologies, which offers software for creating “virtual private networks,” or VPNs, a principal tool for circumventing state censorship.
ProtonVPN, which Droze says has been inventive in finding ways to circumvent Russian blocking, reports clocking ten times as many daily signups than before the war. VPN services tracked by researchers at Top10VPN.com found Facebook and Twitter downloads surging eight times higher than average. Its research found the Kremlin to have blocked more than 270 news and financial sites since the invasion, including BBC News and Voice of America’s Russian-language services.
Russia’s elites are believed to be big VPN users. No one expects them to disconnect.
Russian authorities are also having some success blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which like VPNs lets users visit content at special ”.onion” sites on the so-called dark web, researchers say. Twitter just created a Tor site; other outlets such as The New York Times also have them.
The Kremlin has not, however, blocked the popular Telegram messaging app. It’s an important conduit for Ukrainian government ministries and also for Meduza, the Latvia-based independent Russian-language news organization whose website is blocked in Russia. Meduza has 1 million followers on Telegram.
One reason may be that Telegram is also a vital conduit for Kremlin propagandists, analysts say.
Additionally, Telegram does not feature default end-to-end encryption, which renders messages unreadable by the company and outsiders, as the popular US-based messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp do. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook’s parent, Meta. Telegram does offer users fully encrypted “private chats,” although users have to make sure to activate them.
After the invasion, Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike tweeted a reminder that sensitive communication on insecure apps can literally be a matter of life and death in war. A Signal spokesman would not share user numbers, but WhatsApp has an estimated 63 million users in Russia.
Being able to access outside websites and apps vital to staying informed depend, however, on foreign-based VPN services that Russians say they are having trouble paying for since Visa and Mastercard cut off their country.


Lebanese photojournalist, wounded in Israeli strike, carries Olympic torch to honor journalists

Updated 21 July 2024
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Lebanese photojournalist, wounded in Israeli strike, carries Olympic torch to honor journalists

  • Christina Assi, of Agence France-Presse, was among six journalists struck by Israeli shelling on Oct. 13 2023

VINCENNES, France: A Lebanese photojournalist who was severely wounded during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon carried Sunday the Olympic torch in Paris to honor journalists wounded and killed in the field.
The torch relay, which started in May, is part of celebrations in which about 10,000 people from various walks of life were chosen to carry the flame across France before the Games opening ceremony on July 26.
Christina Assi, of Agence France-Presse, was among six journalists struck by Israeli shelling on Oct. 13 2023 while reporting on fire exchange along the border between Israeli troops and members of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group. The attack killed Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah. Assi was severely wounded and had part of her right leg amputated.
AFP videographer Dylan Collins, also wounded in the Israeli attack, pushed Assi’s wheelchair as she carried the torch across the suburb of Vincennes Sunday. Their colleagues from the press agency and hundreds of spectators cheered them on.
“I wish Issam was here to see this. And I wish what happened today was not because we were struck by two rockets,” Assi told The Associated Press, struggling to hold back her tears. “I wish I could have honored journalists this way while walking and in my best health.”
AFP, Reuters and Al Jazeera accused Israel of targeting their journalists who maintained they were positioned far from where the clashes with vehicles clearly marked as press, while international human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the attack was a deliberate attack on civilians and should be investigated as a war crime.
“This is a chance to continue talking about justice, and the targeted attack on Oct. 13 that needs to be investigated as a war crime,” said Collins.
The Israeli military at the time said that the incident was under review, maintaining that it didn’t target journalists.
While holding the torch, Assi said participating in the relay “is to send a message that journalists should be protected and be able to work without fearing that they could die at any moment.”
In late November 2023, Rabih Al-Maamari and Farah Omar of the pan-Arab television network Al-Mayadeen were also killed in an apparent Israeli drone strike in southern Lebanon while covering the conflict.
Assi doesn’t believe there will be retribution for the events of that fateful October day but hopes her participation in the Olympic torch relay can bring attention to the importance of protecting journalists. “For me, justice comes the day I can stand up again, hold my camera, and get back to work,” she said.
The watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists, in a preliminary count, said at least 108 journalists have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, the majority in the Gaza Strip.
The war was triggered by the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ sudden attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and abducting 250 others. Israel says Hamas is still holding about 120 hostages — about a third of them thought to be dead. Israel retaliated with an offensive that has killed more than 38,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Hezbollah militants have traded near-daily strikes with the Israeli military along their border over the past nine months.


Israeli Channel 13 News ‘axed show for PM Netanyahu,’ UK protesters say

Updated 21 July 2024
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Israeli Channel 13 News ‘axed show for PM Netanyahu,’ UK protesters say

  • Group plans protests on Sunday at 2 locations in UK  

LONDON: The second wealthiest man in the UK is facing protests following claims that his TV network is undermining press freedom in Israel.

Leonard Blavatnik has a majority stake in Channel 13 News in Israel and owns most of Warner Music Group.

Channel 13 News, which is known for its criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its onslaught on the Gaza Strip, canceled its popular program “Warzone” last week.

The decision came after a leadership shake-up in June, which saw Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, reportedly an ally of the prime minister, appointed as chief executive, The Guardian reported.

The popular investigative news program “Warzone” was hosted by the journalist Raviv Drucker, who had exposed a series of scandals about Netanyahu.

The channel’s staff slammed the move as “political meddling,” and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz described it as “purely a political decision, contravening all financial and journalistic logic.”

Britons claiming the show was axed for the Israeli prime minister announced plans to protest on Sunday at the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik wing and the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

WeDemocracy, the group organizing the protest, said in a post on the social platform X that it was staging the event as a “solidarity move with News 13 journalists and (the) defense of press freedom in Israel.”

The protest also aims to put pressure on Blavatnik to “change the improper appointment of Yulia Shamalov-Berkovic as chairman of the channel,” the group added.

Netanyahu’s government, in retaliation for a deadly Hamas attack on Oct. 7, launched a deadly bombing campaign on Palestine’s Gaza Strip, killing over 38,800 people, according to the health authority in Gaza.

Ukraine-born Blavatnik is worth £29.24 billion. He was brought up in the US, where his parents emigrated when he was a child.

He has received a knighthood in recognition of donations to British institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery.


Russian court jails US reporter Gershkovich for 16 years in spying case his employer calls a sham

Updated 19 July 2024
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Russian court jails US reporter Gershkovich for 16 years in spying case his employer calls a sham

  • Gershkovich and his employer say he did nothing wrong, Kremlin says he was caught ‘red-handed’
  • The decision is likely to heighten the already tense relations between Russia and the West

MOSCOW: A Russian court found US reporter Evan Gershkovich guilty of espionage on Friday and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum security penal colony in what his employer, the Wall Street Journal, called “a disgraceful sham conviction.”
Gershkovich, a 32-year-old American who denied any wrongdoing, went on trial in the city of Yekaterinburg last month after being accused of trying to gather sensitive information about a tank factory.
He was the first US journalist accused of spying in Russia since the Cold War, and his arrest in March 2023 prompted many US and other Western correspondents to leave Moscow.
Video of Friday’s hearing released by the court showed Gershkovich, dressed in a T-shirt and black trousers, standing in a glass courtroom cage as he listened to the verdict being read out in rapid-fire legalese for nearly four minutes.
Asked by the judge if he had any questions, he replied “Nyet.”
The judge, Andrei Mineyev, said the nearly 16 months Gershkovich had already served since his arrest would count toward the 16-year sentence.
Mineyev ordered the destruction of the reporter’s mobile phone and paper notebook. The defense has 15 days to appeal.
The White House and State Department had no immediate comment.
“This disgraceful, sham conviction comes after Evan has spent 478 days in prison, wrongfully detained, away from his family and friends, prevented from reporting, all for doing his job as a journalist,” the Journal said in a statement.
“We will continue to do everything possible to press for Evan’s release and to support his family. Journalism is not a crime, and we will not rest until he’s released. This must end now.”
Gershkovich’s friend, reporter Pjotr Sauer of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, posted on X: “Russia has just sentenced an innocent man to 16 years in a high security prison. I have no words to describe this farce. Let’s get Evan out of there.”
Friday’s hearing was only the third in the trial. The proceedings, apart from the sentencing, were closed to the media on the grounds of state secrecy.
Espionage cases often take months to handle and the unusual speed at which the trial was held behind closed doors has stoked speculation that a long-discussed US-Russia prisoner exchange deal may be in the offing, involving Gershkovich and potentially other Americans detained in Russia.
The Kremlin, when asked by Reuters earlier on Friday about the possibility of such an exchange, declined to comment: “I’ll leave your question unanswered,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Among those Russia would like to free is Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany for murdering an exiled Chechen-Georgian dissident in a Berlin park in 2019.
Officers of the FSB security service arrested Gershkovich on March 29, 2023, at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles (1,400 km) east of Moscow. He has since been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.
Russian prosecutors had accused Gershkovich of gathering secret information on the orders of the US Central Intelligence Agency about a company that manufactures tanks for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
The Uralvagonzavod factory, which he is accused of spying on, has been sanctioned by the West. Based in the city of Nizhny Tagil near Yekaterinburg, it has publicly spoken of producing T-90M battle tanks and modernizing T-72B3M tanks.
Earlier on Friday, the court unexpectedly said it would pronounce its verdict within hours after state prosecutors demanded Gershkovich be jailed for 18 years for spying. The maximum sentence for the crime he was accused of is 20 years.
Russia usually concludes legal proceedings against foreigners before making any deals on exchanging them.

’WRONGFULLY DETAINED’
Gershkovich, his newspaper and the US government all rejected the allegations against him and said he was merely doing his job as a reporter accredited by the Foreign Ministry to work in Russia.
State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel on Thursday declined to speak publicly about negotiations on a prisoner exchange, but said Washington was seeking the release of Gershkovich and another jailed American, former US Marine Paul Whelan, as soon as possible.
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is open to a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich, and that contacts with the United States have taken place but must remain secret.
Friends who have exchanged letters with Gershkovich say he has remained resilient and cheerful throughout his imprisonment, occupying himself by reading classics of Russian literature.
At court appearances over the past 16 months — most recently with his head shaven — he has frequently smiled and nodded at reporters he used to work with before he himself became the story.
Since Russian troops entered Ukraine in 2022, Moscow and Washington have conducted just one high profile prisoner swap: Russia released basketball star Brittney Griner, held for smuggling cannabis, in return for arms dealer Viktor Bout, jailed for terrorism-related offenses in the United States.
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, said he believed Gershkovich’s conviction would encourage the few Western journalists still in Moscow to leave.
“The 16-year sentence...is a very heavy one,” he said. “Now many Western journalists will want to leave Russia for fear that they may become victims of a hybrid war between Russia and the West.”


Majarra acquires Arabic AI startup Lableb

Updated 19 July 2024
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Majarra acquires Arabic AI startup Lableb

  • Startup’s solutions embraced by a diverse clientele

DUBAI: Arabic digital content provider Majarra has announced the acquisition of Lableb, an Arabic language artificial intelligence solutions startup.

The transaction makes Majarra the majority owner of Lableb, enabling a more complete integration of the two entities.

It also aligns with Majarra’s vision to enhance the utility of Arabic online through reliable content, advanced user experiences, and Arabic language technologies.

Lableb’s AI and neuro-linguistic programming technologies power content discovery and personalization software products, including enterprise search and recommendation engines.

The startup’s solutions have been embraced by a diverse clientele, including online stores, government platforms, news websites, and enterprise software providers, where nuanced and accurate Arabic language processing is crucial for success.

Lableb has previously collaborated closely with Microsoft and AWS, in addition to leading e-commerce platforms, including Zid, Salla, and Shopify, and content management system software providers like NVSSoft.

As one of Lableb’s earliest clients, Majarra has firsthand experience of Lableb’s Arabic technologies.

Manhom.com, which is powered by Lableb’s named entity recognition technologies, has become the region’s premier Arabic source for professional information.

Lableb’s innovations have also driven search and content discovery across all Majarra platforms, including the flagship Majarra app.

Lableb will maintain its operational independence under Majarra’s ownership, focusing on addressing the unique challenges machines face with Arabic language processing.

The language’s rich morphology, diverse dialects, complex syntactic structure, and context-dependent meanings have long posed significant hurdles for machine understanding and processing.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Majarra’s executive chairman, and CEO Ammar Haykal said: “Majarra and Lableb share a common foundation and vision.

“Kinda’s (Lableb’s CEO Kinda Altarbouch) leadership and the team’s unwavering commitment to the transformative power of Arabic AI/NLP for regional businesses have consistently delivered exceptional product quality.

“Through Lableb, we see immense potential in bringing real-life applications to large language models, some of which have emerged from our region.”

Altarbouch, who is also Lableb’s co-founder, said: “Joining Majarra marks an exciting new chapter for Lableb. Our shared vision of advancing Arabic AI and NLP will drive innovation and deliver significant value to online businesses and their customers.

“Lableb’s tools are robust, ready to deploy, and capable of handling millions of queries weekly.”

Marcus Brauchli, the managing director of North Base Media, said: “This acquisition is timely and demonstrates Majarra’s agility in responding to market evolution.

“By incorporating AI products into its portfolio, Majarra adds a crucial technology dimension to its offerings. While LLMs are transformative, their true potential can only be realized through AI agents like those Lableb provides.”


Advertising group Dentsu committed to growth in Saudi Arabia, says new regional CEO

Updated 19 July 2024
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Advertising group Dentsu committed to growth in Saudi Arabia, says new regional CEO

  • Tarek Daouk tells Arab News about company’s plans, including its new sports agency and initiatives for talent-building, empowerment of women, gender diversity and youth development
  • Dentsu has had a presence in the Kingdom for 17 years, with an established office in Jeddah, and this year opened a regional headquarters in Riyadh

DUBAI: International advertising group Dentsu this week named Tarek Daouk as CEO of its newly created Middle East, North Africa and Turkey operation.

Daouk, who previously served as CEO of Dentsu MENA, will now also lead growth strategy and business execution for Turkey, where the group has “reorganized its operations,” the company said.

He has also been appointed president of Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey for its technology and data-driven customer experience management company, Merkle.

Dentsu has had a presence in the Kingdom for 17 years, with an established office in Jeddah. This year it opened a regional headquarters in Riyadh. The aim was to “provide a locational and cultural hub connecting East and West, with both the opportunity for local clients to expand globally, and international clients to engage with the growth opportunities within the Kingdom and beyond,” Daouk told Arab News.

“The opening of our regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia marks a significant milestone for Dentsu MENA and underscores our commitment to driving growth and innovation in the Kingdom and beyond.”

Brands and agencies must offer “tailored solutions” to clients in response to the “rapid shifts in culture and society” in Saudi Arabia, Daouk said.

“Saudi is in a unique position and the speed of transformation here means you need a unique response. A one-size-fits-all approach for MENA is no longer fit for purpose.”

One of the ways in which Dentsu tailors its approach, he added, is through its global data, identity, and insights platform, Merkury, which combines proprietary and partner data with more than 10,000 consumer-data attributes.

“Saudi was among Dentsu’s leading markets, globally, to launch this technology, so it was a significant milestone for us in leveraging the power of data to reach audiences in a much more targeted way in the Kingdom,” Daouk said.

In May, the company announced the launch of a dedicated sporting agency, Dentsu Sports International, for the Middle East and North Africa region, with its headquarters in Riyadh and offices in the UAE. The decision to have the head office in Riyadh was a strategic one that “demonstrates our belief and commitment in the sports agenda of Vision 2030,” said Daouk.

One of the pillars of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan for national development and diversification is the goal of creating a vibrant society that offers “world-class entertainment, a thriving sports agenda and investment into gaming and esports,” and Daouk believes this presents significant opportunities to “create value with sports, film and music content.”

The demand for sports marketing in the Kingdom is at an all-time high and engagement from sports fans is strong, he added. A study conducted by Dentsu Sports International found residents of the Kingdom spend more time and money on live events than their international counterparts; for example, Saudis attend an average of six events a year compared with the UK average of two.

The company’s commitment to the Kingdom is also reflected in its investment in talent-building initiatives, Daouk said. It is “committed to accelerating Saudi talent recruitment, learning and development of knowledge and skills” through the implementation of its global programs in the country, he added.

The group is also investing in gender-diversity and youth-development initiatives in the Kingdom and has introduced its global “Path of Tabei” program to recruit Saudi women to leadership roles and develop their leadership skills, he added.

Named after Junko Tabei — who in 1975 was the first woman to climb Mount Everest, and in 1992 became the first woman to complete the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on every continent — Dentsu’s “Path of Tabei” is a yearlong program that provides training for selected high-potential women to support their advancement within the company at the senior leadership level.

It has also formed partnerships with Prince Sultan University and other higher-learning institutions, and takes part in local employment fairs and university career days “to find and train the best talents of tomorrow,” said Daouk.

As part of its investment in the Kingdom, Dentsu organized its first “Now to Next” event in Riyadh last year, which brought together global and local experts to discuss industry challenges and plan for future opportunities in the Kingdom and wider region.

This year, worldwide advertising expenditure is expected to increase by $35.8 billion to $754.5 billion, according to Dentsu’s latest Global Ad Spend Forecasts.

“This is not only a 5 percent increase, year-on-year, but is also outpacing global economic growth, (and) MENA, particularly Saudi, is one of the fastest-growing markets,” Daouk said.

This projected growth, combined with “the ongoing digital transformation, significant changes in the ad landscape presenting new routes to market, and the continued investment in gigaprojects building a thriving sports agenda and a cultural hub for gaming and e-sports,” means the “potential and opportunities in Saudi are endless,” he added.

“Our aspiration is to leverage Dentsu’s global expertise and local insights to support Saudi Arabia’s economic-diversification efforts, foster entrepreneurship and innovation, and empower local talent.”