Blocked Russian opposition site recommends Opera to outwit blacklist

Russian users can run Norwegian browser to get around banned URLs

One of the government opposition websites blocked last week by Russian officials recommended that users circumvent the access shut-off by running Opera Software's desktop browser.

Kasparov.ru, the site run by Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion and an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, was one of several websites blocked by Russian ISPs on the order of the country's prosecutor general last week.

The blocked URLs also included opposition sites Grani.ru and Daily Journal; the LiveJournal blog of Alexei Navalny, a frequent critic of Putin's administration; and the website of Ekho Moskvy, a radio station that often takes anti-Kremlin stances.

Roskomnadzor, the Russian government's media-oversight agency, added the sites to a blacklist last Thursday because they allegedly contained "incitement to illegal activity" and calls for "participation in public events held in violation of the established order," according to translations by Google Translate.

The blocked sites have not been taken offline, but because Russian ISPs have blocked their customers from reaching the URLs, they cannot easily be accessed from within Russia.

The moves came as tensions increased between Russia and Ukraine over the occupation by Russian military forces of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsular that voted Sunday to split from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Kasparov's website advised readers to turn to alternate methods to access blocked domains, including Tor -- the anonymity network that conceals the origin of the user's computer -- and the Opera browser.

Opera offers a feature called "Off-Road Mode" -- formerly called "Turbo" -- that is designed to speed up page loading on slow Internet connections. Under off-road mode, Opera intercepts the request for a page, say www.kasparov.ru, and rather than direct the user directly to that URL, instead shoots the page to Opera Software's own servers where the data is heavily compressed. Only then do those servers send the bits to the user's copy of Opera.

Because Opera is requesting those pages from its Norwegian-based servers, the process circumvents Roskomnadzor's blacklist.

Opera Software doesn't trumpet that use of Off-Road Mode. In fact, the company declined to comment Friday on Kasparov.ru's recommendation that Russian users run Opera, and declined to make a company official available for an interview.

Rather, Opera stressed the page-load improvements of the feature. "Opera Off-Road Mode/Turbo was designed solely for making slow Internet connections work faster and make it more affordable to people by squeezing down files to as little as 10% of their original size," a company spokesperson said in an email.

Opera's "usage share" -- the share of all page views monitored by Irish metrics company StatCounter -- was 1.3% globally in February, but 12.4% within the Russian Federation. Since March 1, Opera's usage share within Russia has climbed slightly to 12.6%, but that upward movement was well within the normal fluctuation of the browser's numbers.

Opera 20 can be downloaded from Opera Software's website.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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