Russia Threatens to Block VPNs If Twitter Row Isn’t Resolved

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This week Russian authorities warned that if Twitter fails to remove what it describes as "prohibited content", the social networking service could find itself blocked in the country in a month's time. Anticipating the possible fallout, including Russian users attempting to bypass the ban, a government minister has warned that blocking VPNs will be the next step.

Twitter PirateThe Russian government takes the issue of so-called “prohibited content” extremely seriously.

The term can be used to describe anything from terrorist material, media depicting the abuse of minors, content that encourages suicide or promotes drugs, right through to pirated movies and TV shows. While different standards are applied depending on severity, the Russian authorities are not afraid to flex their muscles when Internet platforms fail to take action.

Twitter in the Firing Line

For some time, local telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor has criticized Twitter for not responding to its calls for prohibited content to be taken down. Roscomnadzor says that more than 3,100 takedown demands have gone unheeded, including those targeting tweets that encourage suicide, contain child pornography, or supply information about illegal drugs.

In what appeared to be a retaliatory move, last week authorities attempted to slow down Twitter access in Russia, prompting the social networking platform to express “deep concern” over attempts to block and restrict online discussion.

Vadim Subbotin, deputy head of Roscomnadzor, said that his agency is ready for discussion but noted that thus far, Twitter had made no attempt to explain why the prohibited content remains on its platform. As a result, the situation has the potential to get much worse.

Twitter Has a Month To Comply Or Face Blocking in Russia

“Twitter does not adequately respond to our requests so if things continue like this, then in a month it will be blocked out of court,” Subbotin told Interfax.

The threat was backed up by Alexander Khinshtein, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications.

“I myself have been a Twitter person since 2010, I have about 380 thousand subscribers there, I use this social network as a feedback from voters,” Khinshtein said.

“On the one hand, I am not a supporter of blocking social networks, but, on the other hand, I understand that this cannot continue. If the Twitter administration does not start a dialogue, you will not be able to follow links to it.”

With that threat looming, attention is now turning to what happens if Roscomnadzor follows through with its threat and blocks Twitter as promised. Clearly, that would be a problem for Twitter but for those who think they can turn to VPNs to mitigate the blockade, the authorities have already considered that.

Things Have Moved On Since Russia Blocked Telegram

In 2018, Russian authorities went to war with Telegram after the platform refused to hand over its encryption keys so that users could be monitored.

Under the authority of the court, ISPs initially began blocking 1.8 million IP addresses used by Telegram but owned by Google and Amazon. Soon after, VPNs became a target, with Roscomnadzor ordering ISPs to block at least 50.

Russia’s crackdown caused widespread disruption yet ultimately failed. This time around, Alexander Khinshtein believes things will be different. Not only will blocking Twitter be possible, but VPNs will also prove ineffective in circumventing any blockade.

“In the story with Twitter, the sad experience of Telegram, of course, will be taken into account. And the story with Telegram 2.0, with which they scare us, they say that everyone will use a VPN. Much has changed since the story with Telegram,” Khinshtein told TASS on Thursday.

Khinshtein told the publication that Russia’s “sovereign Runet” enables an “absolutely autonomous Internet circuit” within the borders of Russia, meaning that the government can “block any signal.”

“Access to VPNs today can be limited in the same way,” he continued. “And if a chain reaction starts, it will happen – blocking of access to these VPNs will begin,” he warned.

Khinshtein said that he had no reason to doubt his advisors, who have already assured the authorities that the technical means are available to block both Twitter and VPNs. Whether that can be achieved without massive collateral damage remains to be seen.

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