While the thought of censorship being associated with Russia isn’t really a shocking idea, Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, has taken steps to limit internet privacy even further.
In March 2019, ten VPN services were contacted by Roskomnadzor, requesting compliance to Russian law that disallows websites that are banned from distribution within the country. Though many of these websites include illegal content such as child pornography, drug-related material, or other such examples, a big number of the blocked websites are opposers to the government.
In this notice, Roskomnadzor requests that VPN providers block websites that are part of the government’s blacklist and that in the case of non-compliance, their service will be limited in Russia. A long list of VPN providers received this notification, including: TorGuard, VyprVPN, OpenVPN, NordVPN, VPN Unlimited, IPVanish, HideMyAss, Hola VPN, ExpressVPN, and Kaspersky Secure Connection.
Though the federal service doesn’t specify how it will limit the VPN services, most of the contacted companies have already informed that they will not comply with Roskomnadzor’s request. TorGuard, IPVanish, and NordVPN proceeded to immediately remove all the servers that they had in the country and replace them with servers in neighboring countries so that Russian users are still able to maintain their privacy with decent connections speed. In addition, VPN Unlimited developed a dedicated protocol, KeepSolid Wise, which is supposedly designed to unblock the software in countries where the use of VPNs is forbidden.
What Does This Mean?
While Roskomnadzor’s blacklist has been functioning in Russia for a long time, blocked websites could still be accessed with the help of a VPN service. Up until now, no VPN provider has been officially banned from the country. However, the law establishes that only VPNs that were approved by the government can be used and if an individual is caught using an illegal VPN, they will be sanctioned.
What the agency is basically asking is that VPN providers block access to these banned websites. However, besides the fact that this is an extensive and almost impossible task, this means that companies would have to give up their users’ privacy and start monitoring their activities and providing their data to the Russian government.
Clearly, such monitoring goes against the principle of a VPN service, which is privacy and anonymity. Despite this, some of the notified VPN services haven’t publicly commented on this matter, which is alarming and can perhaps also be seen as a sign of compliance with Roskomnadzor’s request.
Roskomnadzor’s ‘obey-or-get-blocked’ request was expected for a long time since Russia has been investing in legislation that utterly restricts civilians’ internet freedom for years now. The first signs of internet censorship appeared in 2012, when the Russian internet restriction bill was passed by the Russian State Duma. It aimed to create a blacklist of websites containing content illegal in Russia. Under this law, ISPs are required to employ all restrictions and bans identified by the Russian government.
In 2017, a new bill was approved, this time targeting VPN providers. This law was implemented as way to further combat the spread of radical content online and requires VPN services to block access to sites on the governmental blacklist. The providers have access to Roskomandzor’s list of banned websites and are responsible for blocking users from visiting them. Those who refuse to comply will be blocked by the government.
Besides the Russian internet restriction bill put in place, there have been several instances where the country has blocked sites. Telegram, a messaging application, was also banned in 2018 after refusing to grant access to its users’ encrypted communications. ProtonMail, a free email encryption service, was blocked in March. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter are also being forced to relocate their servers to Russia. And finally, let’s not forget that it was recently discovered that Russia is developing its own internet system, separate from the global internet as we know it.
Whether or not Roskomnadzor will block the VPN services that have already refused to comply with these laws remains to be seen, or even how it can achieve this. However, as evidence suggests, Russian authorities aren’t going to give up control easily and will only play by their own rules.
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