We Figured Out How to Beat the Authoritarian Censors
Elon Musk—and many others—seem to think that “free speech” means the right to have a privately owned platform publish you when you say mean things about trans people.
And that’s fine, so far as it goes. There you are one day saying stuff and the next day you go to say more stuff and the platform says “no thanks.” That’s definitely the kind of thing that can ruin your morning.
But you don’t have to be the most voracious consumer of international news to be aware that most of the world’s citizens are living in profoundly more dire circumstances vis-a-vis their ability to freely say—or even to freely read—certain things without the fear of imprisonment (or worse) at the hands of their governments.
I was born in such a place and, sadly, after a decades-long reprieve, the citizens of my birth nation are yet again living in precisely the conditions of autocratic suppression that my family fled in the 1970s.
The difference between the “freedom” that Elon worries about and the freedom that I’m talking about isn’t a difference in degree. It’s a difference in kind.
It’s the difference between not being allowed to eat at a certain restaurant and not being allowed to eat. These two prohibitions might overlap on a Venn diagram, but one is a burden of prejudice and the other is an existential crisis.
Don’t get me wrong—there are even worse things than losing your freedom of expression. War crimes, for instance. Ethnic cleansing. Human suffering can always be worse. But people go around clutching every pearl they can get their hands on because they’ve been singled out by Twitter’s content moderation program. And at the same time, professional journalists are routinely imprisoned (and occasionally killed) by the government in places like Russia, Iran, and China.
Seems to me like this is the bigger “free speech” problem!
I try not to criticize without offering solutions, so I’m proud to say that I cofounded an organization that uses some clever custom technology to make reliable journalism viewable by people in autocracies that have banned it. And we’ve done it without the people living in said autocracies needing any additional tech, like VPN or TOR or whatnot.
The product is called Samizdat Online and our goal is to make it impossible for any dictator to ever censor the press again. We believe that it is precisely such censorship that leads to things like the invasion of Ukraine with the bewildered and halting support of a thoroughly confused and “programmed” Russian populace.
Here’s how Samizdat Online works:
First, we offer the user top-level access to a huge (and rapidly growing) assortment of international publications that have been banned by various regimes.
Second, our team of international journalists hand-picks stories from these banned publications and, after translating the headlines and ledes into 5 languages (English, Russian, Ukrainian, Farsi, and Belarusian) we publish these stories on our front page.
Being made inaccessible by an autocracy is the sole criterion for inclusion in our roster. The majority of these publications are eagerly and gratefully involved. We generally want the approval of the publication before we go and “unblock” them but in some instances where we feel the information is too dire to wait for such permission (as in the case of many of the stories around the ongoing protests in Iran, which we source from places like the BBC, Al Jazeera, Radio Zamaneh, and Radio Farda), we provide access to them without permission from the publisher. Obviously, if any of these publications ever asked us not to unblock them, we would comply. But to date, no such requests have been made.
Actually, as word about our operation has spread, publications have approached us and asked to be included, because they understand that people need to know what’s happening around them.
As for how it actually “works,” when people come to our website they find that every publisher and article has a button that lets them “share” it. Viral distribution is a mechanism everyone on the Web is now entirely familiar with. However, what we’re “sharing” is what we call an SOS-Link™. This is an obfuscated gibberish link, that points to some totally nondescript domain (which isn’t blocked anywhere), of which we own multitudes and can generate more within seconds.
This link, when followed, goes and fetches the desired content and delivers it to the user. It can be tossed into social media, or emailed, or even pulled right off the screen via a QR code.
Here’s an example of a story over at Meduza.io. Notice the share button—go ahead and use it, you’ll see the SOS-Link™ and if you send it to someone in Russia (where Meduza.io is blocked from view) they can just click on it—and they’ll see the story.
Sure, the Roskomnadzor (that’s the agency that censors content in Russia) can block that particular domain, but we keep track of blocked domains and then retire them and spin up new ones as soon as they’re blocked. The game is called whack-a-mole, and we have an infinite number of moles.
If the name of this operation sounds familiar, it’s because Samizdat was the mechanism by which people in the Soviet Union made copies of and distributed the illicit materials that were censored by their government. Novels, news, music—basically anything that someone could sneak in and then duplicate and distribute. Most of the content wasn’t even ideological or provocative. Back then, my dad taught himself Yoga from books he acquired through Samizdat. Stas Kutcher (our Chief Content Officer) learned about John Lennon’s death from a Newsweek piece he found through Samizdat. (He learned what was truly happening in Afghanistan in the same article—which is when his dad took it away from him, fearing they would both end up in serious trouble.).
In today’s Russia, all liberal media has been criminalized and its creation and consumption is now punishable by 15 years in prison. How’s that for cancel culture?
Samizdat Online can’t help people avoid persecution, but it can help them easily—and with less risk—spread the word about what the outside world really looks like.
Our mission is not focused on Russia exclusively. We are currently unblocking publications from Iran and Ukraine and Belarus. We’re trying our best to rebroadcast as much content from across the globe as possible so that people become familiar with one another’s lives—even if they aren’t connected via culture or ethnicity.
Our core belief is that the key to humanity’s success is the free flow of information because (and forgive me for channeling Yoda):
Information leads to understanding; understanding leads to compassion; and compassion leads to human flourishing.
That’s our entirely earnest ethos.
So yes, by all means, hash out all the ways that Twitter and the other social media platforms in the free world either do or do not adhere to full-spectrum libertarianism. But don’t forget that much greater things are at stake elsewhere and that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
At Samizdat Online we’ll be doing our part to keep the free flow of information accessible to those who desperately need it. And maybe we can help break an autocracy or two?
Wish us luck.
Oh, and if your name is Elon Musk, we’d love you to contribute a few bucks to our free speech endeavor! We know you’re busy with other things, so you don’t have to do anything other than write a check . . . we’ll take it from there!