Summary: The Russian VPN Ban has come into effect, and many say that this is one step towards full censorship of the internet in Russia. If the Russian laws ban VPN, what can people do to work around this and avoid Russian online censorship entirely?
Russian online censorship in the past has mostly come under the auspices of the Roskomnadzor – a federal executive body fully responsible for media control and supervision. This includes electronic media, IT and communications, and supervision over personal data compliance with the legislation of the Russian Federation. They are an authorized federal executive body, and they are responsible for censorship.
In recent years, they have caused public outcry by censoring certain websites. In 2013 they allegedly banned Wikipedia because of an article on Cannabis smoking. However, the New York Times reported that the Russian government was running tests “selectively blocking the internet.”
Fast forward to the Crimea Crisis when Roskomnadzor was actively blocking websites that criticized Russian policy in the Ukraine.
More forward to 2016 – adults trying to access adult content sites like YouPorn and PornHub were met with a proxy error messages.
And the censorship activities keep rolling in.
And now a ban on VPNs??
What is this Russia VPN Ban About?
The new Russian VPN Ban, which came into effect this week, is not being handled by the Roskomnadzor. Instead, the Federal Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are taking the helm. Although many news websites are calling this the beginning of a blanket Russian VPN ban, the law actually blocks websites offering proxies and anonymizers, as well as non-compliant VPN services and TOR.
This means that internet service providers are now forced to block websites which offer illegal VPN services, rather than specifically blocking VPN traffic. The FSB will find the owners of VPN services, including anonymizers, and then ensure they implement Russia’s internet censorship blacklists. As users are often using the VPN so that they can access these very websites, this is bad news for anyone who wants freedom of movement online in Russia. The bottom line is, VPNs will no longer be able to be used to circumvent Russian censorship online.
Denis Krivosheev is the director of Amnesty International in the area, and he says: “With the Russian authorities increasingly intolerant of dissent, technologies that help internet users evade censorship and protect their privacy are crucial for freedom of expression online. Today the authorities have given themselves an instrument to ban the use of VPNs and other technologies that help people to freely access information online.”
But Wait, There’s More Russian Online Censorship
This might well be the beginning of a slippery slope for Russian citizens. At the same time as this new law was signed, another law was announced which will be passed in this coming January, just two months away.
This new law is similar to one which was passed in China earlier in the calendar year. It requires messaging services to verify the identities of their users, with the help of phone numbers. More frighteningly still, the law will mean that operators will need to prove they have ability and intent to cut off any users who are seen to be spreading illegal content.
Illegal, of course, means anything the Russian government deems unacceptable.
While both of these laws are coming out under the guise of protecting citizens from extremism and terrorism, there is a widespread fear that this is about controlling social media, communications, and freedom of press.
Is Russia Becoming the Next China?
Some of this might sound familiar, if you followed the news about the ‘Great Firewall of China.’ China has been more overt about their decision however, telling the world openly that they will block information which doesn’t reflect the “core socialist values” of their country. The restrictions have included Japanese animations, South Korean soap operas, and even a ban on Justin Bieber visiting the country!
While some of this might sound unimportant, there are of course, more frightening examples. Recently, the Chinese government deleted images of Liu Xiaobo on his death-bed in a government controlled hospital. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been held as a political prisoner for eight years, and the Chinese government refused overseas medical treatment for him. Images from social media apps WeChat and Weibo were deleted immediately, in real-time, as the government were concerned that his death would cause political protest. Chinese authorities were clearly able to watch private conversations, and strip it of whatever elements they wanted, even removing messages in transit.
These new laws in Russia are shocking for many, and certainly herald a new online censorship which is worrying for freedom of information online. But it looks like they have a long way to go before they are competing with China in terms of control.
What Does this all Mean for Russian Citizens?
As VPNs themselves are not being blocked, many providers are promising their users that they will not give in to these new regulations. ExpressVPN for example has written a statement saying: “ExpressVPN will certainly never bow to any regulations that compromise our product’s ability to protect the digital rights of users. More than ever, we’re committed to keeping our users stay connected to the free and open internet, no matter where they are.”
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Business users should understand that Russia is now enforcing a legal right and may well access their data. Business travelers who come to Russia for work may struggle under the new rules, and find some websites blocked, even when using their VPNs. Your data may well be being accessed, even if your VPN does work. Former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Bob Gourley suggests that you don’t bring any corporate data with you, and ensure that you don’t communicate sensitive data while you’re in the country at all. Always use multi-factor authentication, which can help with privacy.
For personal use, remember that your VPN might still tick all the boxes for you, especially if you use it to geographically spoof your location, or for added security against hackers or public Wi-Fi. While your VPN will need to comply with the list of blacklisted Russian websites, this might not affect your movement online as much as you think. A step in a worrying direction, but perhaps not the full Russian online censorship that is being forecasted.