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Last month, Russia ordered 10 VPN providers to link their servers in Russia to the state censorship agency. VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) allow users to establish secure and private connections to the internet and simulate being in a different location. This simulation is important for Russians to be able to access the extensive websites that have been blocked by the government and avoiding surveillance.

The law in Russia prohibits web content advocating drug abuse or production, descriptions of suicide methods, child pornography, and “extremist” content. Websites containing this kind of content are blacklisted in Russia. In theory, I agree wholeheartedly with these restrictions, but, under the extremist content is where Russia has taken to oppressive blocking of dissenting material against their government.

These 10 popular VPN service providers have been ordered to link their servers in Russia to the state censorship agency Roskomnadzor by April 26, 2019. The providers are being ordered to join the state IT system which contains a registry of banned websites as well as allowing Roskomnadzor to surveil traffic occurring on VPN’s. Russia had previously required Internet service providers to comply with its blocked sites list. The 10 providers are ExpressVPN, HideMyAss!, Hola VPN, IPVanish, Kaspersky Secure Connection, KeepSolid, NordVPN, OpenVPN, VyprVPN, and my personal VPN-of-choice TorGuard. 

Six of these providers, ExpressVPN, IPVanish, KeepSolid, NordVPN, OpenVPN, and TorGuard have removed their servers from Russia (to avoid equipment seizure) and said that they do not plan to comply. Kaspersky Labs, which is based in Moscow, is the only platform which has said it will comply with the order. The other three have not stated how they plan to proceed. 

It’s not clear how Roskomnadzor plans to proceed after April 26th with the platforms who have not complied.  They threaten to block VPN traffic, but blocking VPN traffic is incredibly complex, and most VPN platforms would be able to circumvent it. 

An (unofficial) list of sites banned in Russia can be found here, from a company which reviews and offers affiliate links selling VPNs. Some notable blocked sites include Dailymotion, the Internet Archive, Twitch, and Bitcoin. Other sites like Children-404, which provided an anonymous forum and support for LGBT teens in Russia, are also banned. 

Alexander Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor

Russian censorship and laws surrounding the internet are complex. With major social media platforms which are owned from outside Russia like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc their censorship has taken the form of selective post removal. They require these platforms to remove material that Roskomnadzor deem objectionable, or they threaten to block the platform entirely. More popular local Russian platforms like VK collaborate fully with Roskomnadzor. 

In 2015 Reddit in Russia was temporarily fully banned because of one post about how to grow magic mushrooms, which had only received one upvote and one comment. But, Reddit had not removed the post and Russia played hard and blocked the entire platform until it was removed. This is their way of (successfully) keeping platforms to their policies. Russia has the power here with the massive user base that platforms do not want to lose, and they have shown they are willing to block the platforms. But, for Russia, this kind of selective post removal is favorable to blocking entire social media platforms which would cause more outrage from both within and outside the country.

Only about 3% of Russians use VPN services, which as an amount which grew considerably following the banning of the messaging app Telegram.

In 2017, the government originally enacted the law forbidding the use of VPN’s to access blocked Web sites. Until this recent event, they have not really enforced the law against VPN providers or people using VPN’s. 

If successful, this act would render VPN services much less useful as far as avoiding government surveillance and engaging in or viewing protest or websites and materials not allowed for under current Russian law. VPN’s would still remain useful for things such as protecting one’s credit card information while online shopping on public wifi. This recent asking for compliance from VPN platforms shows Russia is amping up its efforts to prevent access to these blocked websites and towards further censorship and surveillance of the internet. It’s unclear what the future will hold and how far this policy will go. 

Featured image via Madskip/Pixabay 

Image via The Kremlin

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