Google Tech Change Appears To Help Governments Censor The ‘Net

CYBERSPACE—Two of the world’s largest and most powerful internet companies recently changed their technology in a way that critics say plays right into the hands of government censors—and the move comes around the same time that the Russian government blocked nearly 16 million internet addresses in an effort to censor the messaging app Telegram.

Google says that its new technological change has been in the works for a long time, though the company didn’t say how long, but some critics suspect that the company—as well as Amazon, which also made a similar move in April—caved to pressure from Russia.

The tech update by Google and Amazon has barred a feature known as “domain fronting,” but the companies say that they never intended to support domain fronting anyway, with Google claiming that the tool worked only due to “a quirk of our software stack.”

Domain fronting allows a user to reach blocked sites by disguising the address of the site the user is trying to reach. A government censor becomes unable to tell when users are accessing blocked sites. Last month, Russia blocked millions of internet addresses used by Telegram, a messaging app widely employed by anti-government activists in countries with repressive regimes. Iran banned the app earlier this year after activists used Telegram to organize street protests. 

Russia blocked the Telegram addresses last month after Telegram’s owners refused to share users’ private messages with the Kremlin. The app has about 200 million users, many of them in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.

Domain fronting provides a workaround, letting users appear to be accessing a common address, such as, when they are actually reaching one of the millions of banned addresses.

But on April 13, internet developers began to notice that the domain fronting technique no longer worked, using Google. On April 27, Amazon also disabled domain fronting on its own networks.

“This timing has caused some to question if Russian pressure played a role in the decision,” wrote Daily Beast tech reporter Kimberly Zenz on Tuesday. “It may have—Google and Amazon have yet to reply to questions on the topic—but this decision did not occur in a vacuum.”

Zenz noted that domain fronting can also be used by hackers and other criminals—a possibility that could lead to liability issues for big internet companies such as Google and Amazon. In fact, the Russian intelligence hacking group APT29, also called “Cozy Bear,” which was responsible for the hacks of Democratic Party servers during the 2016 presidential election, has used domain fronting to disguise its online espionage activities at least since 2015.

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