The “Extremist Websites Blocking Law” created a national blacklist to prevent socially harmful websites from being accessed by the public.
No longer would extremist, terrorist, Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), or the promotion of illegal drugs be allowed to spread online. ISPs would block offending sites within hours of receiving a complaint and Russian society as a whole would benefit.
Slippery Slope Ensues
The government assured citizens that only illegal content would be blocked and the blacklist could even be supervised by an independent citizen monitoring group. In the event, telecoms regulator Roscomnadzor appointed itself supervisor but the government did keep its word to block only illegal content, by making more and more content illegal.
Over the last decade Russia has introduced more laws to expand its blocking powers to encompass pirate streaming sites and torrent portals, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and any ‘illegal’ news sites that stray from the Kremlin’s definition of factual reporting.
In the background, citizens accustomed to unblocking unlicensed media sites started using their VPN and Tor skills to get an unrestricted view of the world. Russia responded by placing strict rules on VPN servers in Russia and then via the ‘VPN Law’, outlawed internet tools that enable access to illegal information.
Information War Targets VPNs
Russia has been using its anti-VPN legislation to remove hundreds of thousands of VPN-related links from Google and since the invasion of Ukraine, has stepped up the pace. Tor is also in the middle of a blocking drama and now faces a court battle.
Over the past few days, Russian VPN users reported fresh issues when trying to access well-known providers such as NordVPN, which does not even have servers in Russia. Problems were also experienced when accessing Switzerland-based Proton VPN, peer-to-peer censorship circumvention tool Lantern, Windscribe, and related services including VPN creation tool Outline.
“We are currently investigating the issue, but it is not caused by any changes on our side,” Proton announced. “It is likely that the local ISPs and the authorities are interfering with VPN connections, in which case it may not be possible for us to solve such issues. Some servers may continue to work. We are continuing efforts to bypass the block.”
Russia Admits Responsibility
In a statement to local media, telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor reiterated that website unblocking tools are illegal and measures are being taken to limit access to them.
“According to the Law ‘On Communications’, means of bypassing blocking of illegal content are recognized as a threat. The Center for Monitoring and Control of the Public Communications Network is taking measures to limit the operation of VPN services in Russia that violate Russian law,” the government agency said.
At least historically, VPN providers have usually been given notice that they need to come into compliance or face action but there are no signs that the targeted providers were notified in recent weeks. Whether it played a direct role is unclear but Proton previously offered Russians free access to its services, to bypass state censorship.
On March 15, 2022, Alexander Khinshtein, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, revealed that at least 20 VPN services are now being blocked in Russia and that Roscomnadzor intends to block more, if providers fail to comply with the law.
A key problem for privacy-focused VPN providers is the Russian requirement to connect to the Federal State Information System which contains a register of sites and URLs deemed illegal in Russia. Most simply refuse and leave the country but when that is not possible, they are compelled to block sites themselves, a situation that Kaspersky failed to prevent.