A woman takes a selfie in Red Square near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. (Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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As Russia makes preparations to possibly disconnect from the global internet in a bid to control the narrative around the invasion of Ukraine, one secretive U.S. company is rushing to lay the final pieces of an unbreakable network that the Kremlin won’t be able to take down.
The company is Lantern, which says it has seen staggering growth inside Russia in the last four weeks for its app that allows users to bypass restrictions the Kremlin has put in place on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
But now the company is building something even more robust, an internal peer-to-peer network that will allow dissenting voices to continue to upload and share content even if the Kremlin pulls the plug on the internet.
“We’ve been putting pieces in place in Russia for the last two years,” Lucas, one of Lantern’s co-founders, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, told VICE News. “So inside Russia right now, Lantern is also this peer-to-peer network that has all of this opposition content that’s distributed internally.”
Within the next week, the network will be fully operational, allowing opposition voices to use the Lantern app to post content like videos from protests or updates on the war in Ukraine directly to the Lantern network. This would allow users to share it with other Lantern users without fear that the content will be removed or blocked.
The app, which has in the past received funding from the U.S. government via the State Department’s Open Technology Fund, has become a huge hit in Russia in recent weeks.
The amount of traffic passing through Lantern’s servers has risen 100,000% in the last four weeks according to the company, though it did not provide a baseline figure for comparison. Lantern said it would not break out country-level user numbers but told VICE News that globally the app has been downloaded 150 million times and has 7 million active monthly users, double the number it had three years ago.
The spike in usage came after the Kremlin began shutting off access to mainstream social media sites while also introducing a law that threatened anyone publishing “fake news” about the war in Ukraine with up to 15 years in jail.
The growth has been so rapid that Lantern says Russia this week surpassed China as its biggest market in terms of traffic, though China has been the company’s primary focus for years.
The developers have spent years playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the Chinese censors who maintain the Great Firewall, Beijing’s highly sophisticated network of filters, bans, and blocks that prevent the free flow of information online.
And just like in China, the developers of Lantern don’t have a clue how so many people in Russia have begun using their app.
“It just started to spread and the same thing has happened in every region we’ve been in as well: It’s just word of mouth,” Lantern co-founder Wolf told VICE News. “We still don’t know. There are over 150 million downloads [of the app] and we haven’t spent one cent on marketing. So we’ve no idea how it spreads.”
Wolf and Lucas, who have decades of experience building and scaling successful tech products, both use pseudonyms to protect their identities, fearing retaliation from the regimes in Beijing, and now Moscow, for helping people circumvent censorship.
Aside from a couple of blog posts on Medium, Lantern has spent no money or effort on advertising or promotion inside Russia, and yet downloads on Google and Apple’s app stores have surged among Russian users eager to get an unfiltered view of the war in Ukraine.
Part of the reason for this is that digital rights groups such as Access Now have been recommending Lantern, along with other anti-censorship tools like Tor and TunnelBear, to people in Russia seeking to get access to unfiltered information.
“Now I have a window to the normal world from this prison called Russia,” one Russian user said this week in an email to Lucas.
As the so-called “Digital Iron Curtain” has closed in recent weeks, Russian users have scrambled to find ways around it. In the days and weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, downloads of the top virtual private network (VPN) apps on Apple and Google’s app stores spiked, CNN reported.
Natalia Krapiva, legal counsel with digital rights advocacy group Access Now says she’s unsurprised by the spike in Lantern users but says the number of people inside Russia using these types of tools is still in the minority.
We’re definitely seeing them moving from being more of a niche tool turning into something much more widely used,” Krapiva told VICE News. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the majority of people use them, I think we’re still not there. I think there are still a lot of people, especially older, not as tech-savvy people who still don’t know what VPNs are, how to use them, or which ones are safe.”
While other VPN companies have reported some efforts to disrupt their services in Russia, Lantern works differently from a traditional VPN by focusing on finding ways to access blocked content. As a result, it can be used to access regionally locked down content on services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer, but its censorship-busting technology is more robust. The company says it’s seen no interruption to its services in Russia in recent weeks, largely thanks to the experience it gained battling China’s censors in recent years.
“You need to remember that the Russian government is not going to be technically as good as China’s at squeezing our traffic and doing shit to us,” Wolf said. “China has so much more experience of screwing around with international traffic in general.”
But Lantern’s ability to bypass the measures the Kremlin has put in place may soon be thwarted because Moscow is considering disconnecting from the global internet completely.
The Russian government recently put measures in place that will allow it to disconnect completely from the global internet and rely on a so-called “sovereign internet” that would be entirely under Kremlin control.
Just a month ago the idea that the Kremlin would pull the plug on the global internet was dismissed given how interconnected Russia was with the global economy with the global internet. But in the way of severe sanctions, Western companies pulling out of Russia, and the Kremlin already blocking large swathes of the wider internet, the possibility of it happening is increasingly likely.
“There’s little incentive for Russia to stay connected because the world is already disconnecting Russia themselves,” Krapiva said. “if Russia does disconnect, and then the world disconnects Russia, then we’re going to have people just isolated and left alone, only with government surveillance, propaganda, and censorship, and that’s not going to be helpful for anyone.”
If that happens, Russian internet users won’t be able to access any non-Russian websites, even if they are using services like traditional VPNs, and this is where Lantern’s new peer-to-peer network will become so important, allowing users to continue to communicate and post content on an uncensorable network where videos, images, and other information can be shared freely among users—and there’s nothing the Kremlin can do about it.
Lantern was founded in California in 2010 with the goal of keeping “the world’s information, speech, expression, and finance uncensored.” The free version of the app has a data cap of 500MB, but the pro version, which costs $32 a year, has no data cap. It has become hugely popular in China because of its ability to stay one step ahead of the government’s censorship efforts, spreading mainly via word-of-mouth as it’s not available via the Google or Apple app stores inside China.
In Russia, like all new markets it enters, Lantern removed the data cap for all users. Despite this, some users still paid for the pro version. “We started to see a lot of revenue coming in from Russia,” Wolf said, adding that financial sanctions against Russia quickly shut off that revenue stream.
This is something that has impacted many anti-censorship tools as payment companies have arbitrarily prevented Russians from paying for VPNs or other tools claiming they were doing so in solidarity with Ukraine or simply imposing sanctions.
“A lot of it is misguided precisely for the reason that they’re actually limiting Russian users ability to get the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine and circumvent censorship,” Krapiva said.
Demand for the tools like Lantern has rocketed in recent years as internet freedoms globally have been declining for more than a decade. In recent years the company has seen large growth in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Iran, where repressive regimes restrict access to large swathes of online content, including independent media outlets that are critical of the government.
As well as the money it earns from its pro users, the company is funded by grants from various bodies, although its parent company, Innovate Labs, doesn’t disclose its sources of funding.
One known source of funding, however, is the U.S. State Department, via its Open Technology Fund, which provided a total of $790,000 to Lantern in 2015. Lantern is one of several anti-censorship technologies that the OTF supports, including the encrypted web browser Tor and secure browsing tool Psiphon.
The company has so far been reticent to speak to the media because the founders are wary about attracting the attention of regimes like China’s and Russia’s, and the possible fallout for them and their families.
“We all have kids,” Wolf said. “We are trying to actively come out of the shadows. We don’t want to be some small confrontational tech company that fights governments, we want to grow to be a cutting-edge tech company. But we’ve got to get the balance right while we figure it all out.”
But it’s increasingly hard to stay out of the limelight, as the app’s success in Russia shows, and will soon increase as the company is planning to roll out an even more ambitious product in the coming months.
Lantern told VICE News that it is in the final stages of building another product that will allow people all over the world to host information on their own computers in censorship-free countries and provide access to that information to those inside repressive regimes.
“People can run the Lantern [node] in these uncensored regions and act as access points for people in censored regions. So if you want to help out in Ukraine, and you’re in Berlin, just fire up Lantern, and it can become the gateway now for someone in Moscow,” Lucas said.
To encourage people to set up a Lantern node, the company has created a cryptocurrency called Yinbi, which will be paid to those who allow their computers to act as hubs in this new decentralized network.
But for now, Wolf says that Lantern is focused on Russia, and ensuring that no matter what the Kremlin does, its users inside the country will be able to access the information they need if “the Kremlin pulls the plug on the internet.”