When censors at Belarus’ Ministry of Information announced they were going to block the website of lifestyle publication KYKY in the summer of 2020, everything changed for its team of journalists and editors. Many of its team members fled the country, fearing widespread crackdowns and arrestssays Sasha Romanova, a director at KYKY. When censors finally blocked the website in December 2020, the impact was immediate. “Before blocking, we had almost 5 million visits monthly,” Romanova says. The number of visitors dropped off a cliff.
Then the magazine started fighting back. With readers in Belarus unable to access KYKY‘s websiteit started registering new, unblocked domains and hosting the articles on them. “We started to buy domains with silly names,” Romanova explains. The domains—such as massandry.net and netetabletki.rip—allowed people to read independent media, and simultaneously were named to mock Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
Every week, Romanova says, KYKY would buy a new domain and wait until censors found it and blocked it. “They’re so ancient and bureaucratic, our domain name was alive for a week,” Romanova says. After around two months, Romanova says, continuously moving to new domains became expensive and untenable.
However, since around June this year, much of KYKY‘s readership has returned as a result of a new anti-censorship tool that supercharges the process of registering unblocked domains and automatically syndicating news articles. The project, called Samizdat Online, makes blocked websites visible to people and doesn’t need any technical knowledge to use.
Yevgeny Simkin, the cofounder of Samizdat Online and founder of a software engineering firm, says it is designed to help people in Russia and other oppressed countries access uncensored news and information. “Putin’s propaganda operation is probably the only competent thing that they have,” says Simkin, who left Soviet Russia when he was a child and started the project after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February. “At least at this stage, undermining that is technologically not all that complicated.”
Around the world, countries that block websites frequently do so using DNS blocking, which essentially means that websites can’t be accessed by typing their domain names. Samizdat Online, which was first covered by Business Insider, works by syndicating stories from news websites to new domains. “We create and register these random-looking domains in large numbers,” Simkin says. Samizdat Online calls them SOS-Links.
The organization has permission from more than a dozen blocked publications in Russia and Belarus to syndicate their content. Its homepage currently lists websites that it is syndicating, but from next week on will appear as a more traditional news site, suggesting articles from publications it syndicates and providing shareable SOS-Links to their websites.
Every time you access the website of The Moscow Times using Samizdat Online, for instance, it will show on a different domain. When I open the homepage, I am shown it on the domain: sfzgohtwrm.net/. The rest of the URL after the slash is made up of a long string of characters and letters, which encode data about the page you’re visiting, such as the CSS needed to display the website correctly. When I click an article at the top of the homepage, I am taken to the domain raul.help/ (again, followed by encoded data). Another click takes me to the domain: uvsoxmqdcu.net/.