Google Delisted Hundreds of Thousands of URLs to Comply with Russian ‘VPN Law’

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Week in and week out, the Russian telecoms watchdog Roskomnadzor orders Google to remove hundreds of URLs. The requests, which are sent under the country's VPN law, target sites and services that allow access to pirated content. Over the past two years, more than half a million links were targeted through these requests.

google russiaOver the past several years, Russia has introduced various anti-piracy laws and regulations that focus on the role of online intermediaries.

App stores are required to take strict action against ‘pirate’ apps, search engines must swiftly block pirate sites, and even VPN services and proxies can be banned.

Russia started cracking down on VPNs and anonymizers in 2017, banning services that allow users to access pirate sites. A year later the legislation was updated by requiring search engines to block the URLs of services that don’t comply.

In recent years there hasn’t been much news on how often search engines are urged to take action under this “VPN law.” However, searches of the Lumen Database show that – at Google alone – dozens of requests come in every month, with some targeting thousands of URLs.

Unfortunately, the transparency stops there. Russian law doesn’t allow Google to share what URLs are blocked. Instead of sharing what is removed, Google simply reports the number of URLs that are targeted.

“Google received a request from the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) to remove over 340 URLs from Web Search in Russia,” one of the many recent requests reads.

“This request came under Russian federal law 276-FZ ‘On Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Information, Information Technologies and Data Security’, commonly referred to as the ‘VPN law’. We are unable to publish the full list of URLs due to Russian law,” Google adds.

russia takedown

While details are scarce, we can expect pirate sites and proxies to be on the list of banned sites, as well as VPNs and anonymizers that are not on Russia’s whitelist.

Just recently, Roskomnadzor added Opera VPN and VyprVPN to the list of threats. That would make them likely candidates to be removed from search results, at least in Russia.

When it comes to the takedown volume, there’s another data source we can look at. Google separately reports takedown requests made by Governments and it has a dedicated page for Russia.

Just a few years ago, Russia asked Google to remove ‘only’ a few dozen links per month. However, after the “VPN law” was adopted, this number skyrocketed to tens of thousands of removed links per month.

During the latest reporting period – the six months ending December last year – nearly 200,000 items were removed. The removal reasons include “national security” and “defamation,” but the largest category by far (162,000) is “other.”

russia takedown

Based on the volume these “other” requests are sent by Roskomnadzor, which also covers the ‘VPN law’ takedowns. In an average week, these target thousands of links, so that fits the picture as well.

The question remains what URLs are blocked under this VPN law. When we used the Russian version of Google from a Russian IP-address, we had no trouble finding Pirate Bay proxies. The recently banned Opera VPN and VyprVPN still showed up in search results as well.

So while we can conclude that Russia’s law required Google to remove hundreds of thousands of URLs to protect copyright holders, we wonder how effective it really is.


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