TL; DR: Online crime is increasing in volume and sophistication, making the internet more dangerous and threatening free speech worldwide. eQualitie’s Deflect is an innovative website protection and hosting service built to withstand distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and reliably keep websites online. The service, built on an open-source philosophy, is centered on transparency and fairness, with profits used to fuel the company’s charitable activities.
Freedom of expression has always been a vital and human fundamental right, allowing individuals to openly exchange information and ideas that inform their decision-making.
In an uncensored form, the internet serves as a nearly boundless free speech zone — but it’s under a growing threat. Today, governments and criminal groups are using botnets to carry out Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks to silence voices of opposition or dissent.
Without robust efforts to mitigate them, botnets have the potential to destroy internet freedom as we know it. The team at eQualitie is doing its part to fight back against these malicious actors with Deflect, a website security service that defends civil society and human rights groups from digital attacks.
“Since our inception nine years ago, we have been giving our services away for free to eligible organizations, media outlets, activists, and small political parties,” said Dmitri Vitaliev, Founder and Director of eQualitie. “Our work has been in the realm of international development, freedom of speech, and freedom of association on the internet.”
Deflect offers secure hosting, encrypted connections, advanced mitigation options, and analytic tools, among other resources. eQualitie’s commercial arm, Deflect for Business, supports the nonprofit arm of the service.
“To achieve our goals in the nonprofit sector, we have to set up infrastructure and staff a team that can support and maintain it — which isn’t free,” Dmitri said. “About a year ago, we decided to stop relying solely on grants and to put our products and services on the commercial marketplace as well. I believe we have matured and proven ourselves over the years, allowing us to be an interesting and competitive market option.”
By protecting their sites with Deflect, companies can withstand DDoS attacks while supporting freedom of expression on the internet at the same time. In 2019, the platform served over 80 million unique IPs, mitigated more than 500 individual DDoS events, experienced 99.98% network uptime, and helped shut down malicious infrastructure in five data centers.
Built on an Open-Source Philosophy
Dmitri told us that Deflect has two primary components — a web caching element designed to protect platforms from various forms of malicious traffic and a secure WordPress hosting framework.
From a technical perspective, Deflect is a network of geographically distributed edge servers using reverse proxy caching to protect sites from DDoS and brute force attacks.
“We stood out originally as a DDoS mitigation platform,” Dmitri said. “We decided to add a hosting component to Deflect simply because a lot of the websites being cached by us were still powered by very unreliable hosts. They would often succumb to social engineering, and switch off the client’s site at the first sign of trouble.”
The company chose to provide a managed WordPress hosting platform to cater to the numerous customers already using WordPress. The platform is protected by Deflect and its years of experience in infrastructure hardening and secure service provision. Users can either migrate their WordPress-based websites to the platform or create one from scratch.
Dmitri said that eQualitie is a staunch supporter of the open-source movement and releases all of its software and documentation under free and open-source licenses.
“We are 100% open-source, not only in a lot of the tools that we have adopted from the open-source community but in a lot of the orchestration that we have built around provisioning and maintaining those tools, which we release as open-source,” he said.
Security and Hosting Tailored to Customer Need
Deflect takes a boutique-like approach to protecting clients through its security and hosting offerings.
“My favorite aspect of the project is that we are able to cater to most of our clients’ needs,” Dimitri said. “We can protect them. We can host them. We have in-house data analytics that they can view through their dashboards.”
The Deflect platform also provides secure connections through the automated provision of Let’s Encrypt certificates and offers 24/7 network and client support in six languages. Users can choose to protect their sites using a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution, on-premises infrastructure (coming soon), or a white-label solution.
On behalf of their clients, the team even performs attack investigations, which are published to help spread the word to organizations worldwide.
“Throughout the last nine years of production, we have introduced services as we realized they were needed in order to offer reliable and encompassing security for our clients’ web platforms,” Dmitri told us. “There was no particular plan to end up with the services that we have now — we were identifying weak spots and developing solutions to cover those spots.”
This breadth of services and customization options allows users of all shapes and sizes to leverage the Deflect platform. Dmitri said the company has a vast user base of media, minority groups, human rights organizations, and environmental activists from more than 80 countries.
“We cater both to very small and larger organizations, “ he said. “We’ve helped an investigative journalist who was exposing corruption in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). He was getting maybe 15 visits a day, but attracting some of the biggest attacks we’ve ever seen.”
On the other hand, major online media outlets from Mexico, North Macedonia, and Russia, with millions of readers per day, use the platform to keep their websites up and running.
“We cater to the full gamut of media and NGOs,” Dimitri said. “That’s one of our strong points.”
Focused on Transparency and Fairness
On the commercial side, the company also provides fair and transparent pricing with no hidden fees based on unique monthly visitors, with no extra charges for mitigating attacks against a site or answering support questions.
“We wanted to propose a scheme that would be transparent and fair, rather than a freemium model where you try to get as many customers as possible and convert them to paying customers,” Dmitri said. “With our model, the more popular you are and the more resources you consume in the network, the more you pay.
He said the company has never banned a client from the service because they were being attacked too frequently. The team also vows never to request an outlet cease publishing information that may attract attacks.
“We designed the network infrastructure that allows us to be incredibly flexible with how we move our web assets around,” Dmitri said. “Our goal is to offer any client under an attack our full protection without compromising other clients.”
During the 2013 Iranian presidential election, for example, a website publishing independent exit polls based outside of Iran became the victim of a barrage of attacks and was overloaded with benign traffic. While other infrastructure providers gave the site owner the choice of upgrading to an expensive plan or leaving the platform, Deflect jumped in.
“They came to us, and though we were still in our infancy, we kept the site up for four days and four nights,” Dmitri said. “Spinning network resources around in the face of incredible traffic was very hard back then, especially without the tooling that we have now, but we passed the test.”
Using Machine Learning to Root out Malicious Requests
As for what the future holds, Dmitri said Deflect Labs has been working for the last four years on a network traffic anomaly detector known as Baskerville.
“We have built a machine learning tool in order to separate malicious automated requests from a genuine benign readership,” he said. “It is working with 85% efficacy at the moment within a two-minute time window. Our customers get it for free when they join the Deflect service.”
To lend a hand during the COVID-19 epidemic, the organization is offering free site security and content delivery services for six months to businesses working to support others in a positive way.
“We are going to front those costs internally,” Dmitri said. “With people at home browsing the internet, we have seen an 80% rise in our monthly traffic. We know there are a lot of groups out there who can benefit from better technical resources to serve and communicate with their audience at this time.”
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