Kiwix, the Swiss tool that thwarts Russian censorship

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, many Russian internet users have used the Swiss software Kiwix to download the entire Wikipedia encyclopedia, fearing that it will soon be banned. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

The Swiss software Kiwix makes it possible to copy entire websites to make them accessible offline. While Wikipedia in Russia risks sanctions for its content about the war in Ukraine, downloads of the encyclopedia via Kiwix are breaking records.

This content was published on April 08, 2022 – 13:44

The participatory encyclopedia Wikipedia is one of the few sources of information about the war in Ukraine that is still uncensored in Russia, but it is in the crosshairs of the Kremlin. From 1er March, Wikimedia, the American foundation that hosts Wikipedia, “received several warnings from the Russian government (…) requesting the removal of verified and factual information in articles,” a spokeswoman said in an email to swissinfo. .ch.

In particular, Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor criticizes Wikipedia pages that talk about “Russian invasion of Ukraine” when it is illegal to deviate from official terminology according to which it would be a “special military operation”. On April 5, Roskomnadzor again insisted on the siteExternal link remove “material with incorrect information”, on pain of a fine of up to 4 million rubles (44,000 Swiss francs).

For now, Wikipedia claims not to have obeyed any orders. “These repeated requests in no way alter our commitment to protecting the right (…) to find and share free, open and verifiable information,” the foundation’s spokesperson wrote. However, many fear that this resistance will eventually be banned, as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram have already been.

Downloads multiplied by 50

This context of information war is revolutionizing the use of KiwixExternal link, a Swiss software that has won several innovation awards. It’s completely free, copies entire websites, compresses them and downloads them to a medium – computer, phone or USB stick – for offline reference. Kiwix offers a library of approximately 8000 sites, purely educational. There are, among other things, TED talksExternal linkGutenberg BookstoreExternal linkmedical encyclopedias and, the most requested, Wikipedia.

In response to Roskomnadzor’s threats, “a banner was published on the Russian version of Wikipedia warning that the site was at risk of being blocked and citing Kiwix as a stopgap solution,” said Director General Stephane Coillet-Matillon from the organization. lausanne. Our downloads exploded overnight.”

Since the start of the war, the total number of downloads via the platform has tripled, from 2,000 to 6,000 per day. Traffic from Russia now accounts for nearly 40%, compared to just 2% at the start of the year. Russian Wikipedia downloads, meanwhile, have increased fivefold – from about 100 daily downloads before February to an average of 5,000 by the end of March. “We have 5,000 new users a day and 90% of the people who use us on the iPhone are now based in Russia,” specifies Stephane Coillet-Matillon, for whom this is a “real paradigm shift” from the Kiwix early days. .

The director of Kiwix, Stephane Coillet-Matillon. Kiwix

The Rise of Kiwix

When it started in 2007, the software was a side project for computer scientists Renaud Gaudin and Emmanuel Engelhart – still members of the Kiwix team. Two ‘librist’ developers, ie activists of free access to knowledge, and convinced that the digital divide is not inevitable.

Their technology took on a new dimension from 2016, thanks to a conversation with Stephane Coillet-Matillon, then director of the Swiss branch of Wikimedia. When asked for financial support, he saw the potential of the software, which at that time already had almost a million downloads a year. “That’s when I tell myself it shouldn’t be a small project that you do in your spare time,” he recalls.

Less than a year later, the Kiwix Association was formed to get the tool off the ground. Stephane Coillet-Matillon takes the lead, but the link to Wikimedia remains strong. Nearly 40% of the organization’s annual budget is funded by the United States parent foundation, which also provides board advice. Wikimedia and its Swiss branch are represented on the board.

“Kiwix then becomes a full-time job, we look for financing ourselves and recruit developers,” says the director. Currently, the association has fewer than five full-time jobs, but works with 100 to 200 volunteer developers around the world.

From one million in 2017, the number of users today is about 6 million, spread over 200 countries and territories, including Antarctica. “Knowing that we only count the people we know, emphasizes Stephane Coillet-Matillon. Many by definition use us offline and never appear on our servers.” Kiwix aims to reach 100 million within five years.

Stephane Coillet-Matillon believes the location in Switzerland is “a non-quantifiable, but not insignificant benefit”. “Paradoxically, our product has no vocation to be used in Switzerland, but its life is much easier because it is made in Switzerland,” he underlines. The director cites stability, a reputation for quality and neutrality as factors favorable to his activity. Switzerland also offers specific benefits to start-ups in the information technology sector, such as tax exemptions, and stimulates innovation through incubation programs, he explains.

Originally, Kiwix was primarily intended to support access to education in the most remote areas of the world. Here in Ecuador. Kiwix

From education to circumventing censorship

Normally, 80% of Kiwix use comes from developing countries. The platform’s original vocation is to support access to education in the most remote areas where connectivity is lacking; According to the association, 4 billion people in the world do not have internet access.

But the Kiwix teams know that their tool is also being used to evade state propaganda. The most notable example is North Korea, where dissident organizations use Kiwix to store content on USB sticks, which are then ‘lost’ on the streets as evidence of life from the outside world.

Kiwix is ​​also used in more developed countries, better connected, but where internet access is limited. In Turkey, the blocking of Wikipedia between 2017 and 2020 had already led to an increase in downloads. Before the war, the tool was also used a little in Russia, Iran and especially in China. Last year, the Middle Kingdom was the country of origin for the highest number of downloads (almost 20% of the total). In these countries, the people who use Kiwix often come from the middle class, describes Stephane Coillet-Matillon. “They don’t necessarily actively fight against censorship, but just want access to a quality product that is not available at home.”

“Activists in our Defensive Body”

However, according to the boss, Kiwix has never experienced a situation on a scale comparable to that seen in recent weeks, which raises questions. The association’s role, he says, is not to oppose Moscow head-on. “Our mission is free access to information. We are militants in our defense.”

So should current use of Kiwix be encouraged? “If we start to profile ourselves as an organization that fights against censorship, there is a political risk for the foundations that fund us,” the director notes.

So the team makes trade-offs. After initially considering downloading a selection of articles in Russian about the war in Ukraine, she gave up, believing that “this gesture would have been overtly militant”. On the other hand, Kiwix has put together packages of medical documentation, especially in the field of war medicine, which it promoted on Ukraine’s Google in March – a first for this association that never advertises.

Stephane Coillet-Matillon puts the risks Kiwix runs into perspective. Technically, even if it’s not completely impossible for a country to keep it from functioning, it would be extremely complicated, he believes. The organization’s servers are scattered around the world – none are located in Lausanne – and about twenty mirror sitesExternal link of Kiwix exists, in several countries. In addition, it would be useless to attack Kiwix because since the code is free, “there are copies of it everywhere”.

Stephane Coillet-Matillon adds that security measures to prevent cyber-attacks have always been a “way of life” for the organization, which does not collect personal data. “The best defense is to be ready and we are,” he said. He would be surprised, however, if Kiwix were considered a target. “We’re not big fish,” he said. We continue to see ourselves as educational software; we have a mission, we carry it out, but we don’t have the syndrome of the savior of the world.

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