The US government has pushed new, increased funding into three tech companies since the start of the conflict in Ukraine to help Russians bypass censorship and access Western media, according to five people familiar with the situation.
The funding effort is aimed at three companies building Virtual Private Networks (VPN) – nthLink, Psiphon and Lantern – and is designed to support a recent increase in their Russian users, the sources said.
VPNs help users hide their identities and change their online location, often to circumvent geo-restrictions on content or circumvent government censorship technology.
Reuters spoke with executives of all three US government-backed VPNs and with two officials of a US government-funded nonprofit that provided them with funding — 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 Feb. 24.
According to publicly available funding documents reviewed by Reuters, the three VPNs received at least $4.8 million in US funding between 2015 and 2021. Since February, the total funding allocated to the companies has increased by nearly half to meet rising demand in Russia, the five people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Funding is channeled 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 – and the Washington-based OTF, which is funded entirely by the US government and overseen by the USAGM.
Laura Cunningham, chair of the OTF, said the organization had increased its support for the three VPNs because “the Russian government is trying to censor what their citizens can see and say online in order to cover up the truth and silence dissent”.
Censorship evasion tools, including the VPNs, backed by OTF, averaged more than 4 million users in Russia last month, Cunningham added.
In a statement, USAGM also said it supports the development of a range of censorship circumvention tools, including VPNs. It also did not provide precise details of their funding.
“With the Kremlin’s escalating crackdown on media freedom, we have seen an extraordinary rise in demand for these tools among Russians,” said Laurie Moy, spokesperson for USAGM.
The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to an email request for comment. In a statement, the Kremlin rejected allegations of online censorship: “We do not censor the internet. Russia regulates certain internet resources, just like many other countries in the world.”
Martin Zhu, technical director at nthLink, said the number of daily users of his app in Russia recently skyrocketed after it was heavily promoted by US government-funded news websites such as Voice of America: “The chart went from 1,000 in a day to 10,000 the next day, up to 30,000 the day after, up to 50,000 and straight up.”
“There are many people in Russia who do not trust Putin and the government media,” he said.
Zhu, who shared confidential data with Reuters illustrating this spike in users, said his company would normally struggle to operate within Russia without financial backing from the US government.
Nigel Gibbs, a public affairs officer for VOA, said it regularly promotes the three VPNs on its network and integrated one of them, Psiphon, directly into the VOA smartphone app.
Mike Hull, CEO of Psiphon, headquartered in Toronto, said the recent funding from the US government had been “instrumental”. He said more than 1.3 million Russians use Psiphon’s network every day.
At Lantern, an executive at the company, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said it had added 1.5 million monthly users in Russia since the start of the war, from a previous base of about five million monthly users worldwide. thanks to promotion on US government media and also word of mouth on the messaging app Telegram, which is popular in Russia.
According to three people familiar with the case, posters have appeared in Moscow since the start of the war advertising nthLink and other US government-backed VPNs, as well as independent Russian-language media outlets.
A homemade poster posted in a Moscow apartment building the month after the invasion read: “Read about Russia and Ukraine in Russian. Knowing the truth is not a crime!” Below that, a QR code links to nthLink, according to a photo of the poster reviewed by Reuters and confirmed by three separate sources.
Reuters was unable to determine the exact location of the poster or who hung it. The mayor’s office in Moscow and local police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the posters.
Opening nthLink in Russia directs users to a range of recent news headlines, including updates on Moscow’s war in Ukraine, from US government-funded news websites.
Long before Moscow launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian authorities had exerted pressure on the domestic media they perceived as hostile and foreign by labeling some media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents”.
In an escalation of that pressure, Russia’s parliament passed a law in March that would allow journalists up to 15 years in prison for deliberately spreading “fake” news about the Russian military.
Moscow also shut down access to several foreign media websites, including the BBC and Voice of America, on March 4 for spreading what it claims is false information about the war in Ukraine. At the time, VOA and BBC both denied the claim.
As early as 2017, Putin signed a law banning the use of VPNs, and in 2019 Russia threatened to completely block access to a range of popular VPNs. Even so, the apps are still quietly used in Russia.
Demand for VPNs in Russia skyrocketed in March when Moscow imposed restrictions on some foreign social media outlets, including Facebook and Instagram.
On the eve of the ban, VPN demand spiked 2,088% above the daily average demand in mid-February, data from London-based monitoring company Top10VPN shows.
“The need to look for a VPN arose with the blockages 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 retaliation.
He said that although he had access to social media in Moscow, they were blocked when he returned to Oryol. “Then I came across Psiphon and strangely enough it worked both in Moscow and Oryol: no disturbances; always connected.”
Authorities in Moscow and Oryol have not responded to requests for comment.
While interest in VPNs has waned recently, daily usage is still up by an average of 452% from the week before the 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.
The Russian population is approximately 144 million and according to 2020 World Bank data, an estimated 85% have access to the internet.