By David Meyer
June 7, 2019

Internet freedom in Russia has been under attack for several years now, with an host of laws designed to monitor what people do online and stop them from accessing information that the authorities want suppressed. Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that many Russians and people visiting the country try to work around these blocks and hide their tracks as they surf and post content.

But that may soon become more difficult, as the Russian authorities attempt to block the main tools used to maintain online privacy and free expression: virtual private networks, or VPNs.

VPNs aren’t just useful for those who are keen on protecting their civil liberties—they’re also essential tools for business travelers and other security-conscious people who log onto public or hotel Internet connections. Nonetheless, President Vladimir Putin signed a law a couple years back that allows the blockage of VPNs, and those bans are about to start biting.

Up to nine popular VPNs could be blocked within a month, the head of Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor told the Interfax news agency Thursday, because they refused to stop allowing users to access banned websites.

Banned material

Roskomnadzor runs an ever-expanding list of websites and online services that Internet service providers must stop their customers from accessing.

The banned content ranges from child sexual abuse material, terrorist chatrooms and gambling sites to religious literature, sites advocating drug abuse, and so-called “gay propaganda.”

The most widely-publicized blacklisting episode was last year’s attempted blockage of the encrypted-messaging app Telegram, after the app’s proprietors refused to turn over encryption keys to the authorities so they could read people’s messages. In a chaotic attempt to stop people from accessing Telegram, Roskomnadzor blocked over 15 million Internet addresses associated with Google and Amazon’s cloud services, causing widespread collateral damage to those companies’ Russian business users.

But many people can still access Telegram and other banned services in Russia today through VPNs that bypass the blocks.

It took a long while for Roskomnadzor to crack down on VPNs as the 2017 law allows, but in March this year, the regulator ordered 10 popular VPN providers to connect their systems to its blacklist, so their users could no longer access banned sites and apps.

They had 30 days to fall into line, but of those 10 VPNs, only one decided to comply: Kaspersky Secure Connection, which is run by Russia’s Kaspersky cybersecurity firm.

The other nine—NordVPN, Hide My Ass, Hola VPN, OpenVPN, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, TorGuard, IPVanish, and VPN Unlimited—are all based outside Russia. And they responded defiantly to Roskomnadzor’s order.

Whack-a-mole

Golden Frog, the Switzerland-based proprietor of VyprVPN, declared that “the strong censorship and oppression of the Russian regime was the main reason for us to avoid locating any of our servers inside Russia.” TorGuard, which is based in the Caribbean island of Nevis, decided to suddenly remove its Russian servers because it’s “dedicated to user privacy.”

Now comes their punishment.

“The law says unequivocally if the company refuses to comply with the law, it should be blocked. So, we will do it,” said Roskomnadzor’s head, Alexander Zharov, on Thursday. However, he indicated that the regulator would still try to convince some of the VPN providers to change their minds.

Tellingly, Zharov said the blockage would not cause a “tragedy” for the VPNs’ users because there are still many other such services out there.

This is very true, as Chinese authorities would testify. There, the authorities have for years also been trying to co-opt VPN providers to stop them from letting users see banned material, and have also been trying to block services that don’t comply. But there are thousands of VPN providers around the world, with new ones constantly appearing.

On top of that, many providers regularly tweak their technology to stymie attempts to block them. At least one VPN provider has proudly likened the situation to a game of whack-a-mole.

It remains to be seen whether Russia will be more successful in its efforts to combat foreign VPN services. But history suggests that those who really want to bypass online blockages will find a way.

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