The problem according to Russia is that these services can provide access to material it prefers citizens not to see, everything from pirated content right through to terrorist propaganda.
In the view of the authorities, VPN providers should cooperate with the government but many are unhappy to do so, especially if that involves any type of monitoring or censorship of services that Russia deems offensive.
After making broad threats against a range of services in 2019, Russia made good on its warnings by blocking two providers, VyprVPN and OperaVPN. Then, earlier this month, local telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor said it would block several more including Nord VPN, ExpressVPN, IPVanish, Hola! VPN, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, and Speedify VPN.
Russia Anticipated There Would Be Problems
In advance of blocking the providers listed above, Russia reached out to the banking sector to ensure that any blocking wouldn’t hurt their activities. The Central Bank then contacted related companies asking them to confirm the names of the VPN services they use, if any, along with the purpose of that use and any known IP addresses.
According to a report from RBC, Roscomnadzor advised that it planned to “implement a set of measures to restrict the use of services,” and the information was needed “in order to exclude VPN connections from access restriction policies.”
According to Roscomnadzor, it received responses from 64 industry organizations, 27 of which use the mentioned VPN connections to support 33 technological processes. “More than 100 IP addresses were presented in order to exclude them from access restriction policies,” the watchdog reported.
Despite these efforts, however, it appears that Russia’s attempt at blocking the providers may have overstepped the mark.
Disruption Reported On Multiple Online Services
After the new blockades came into effect, multiple online services reported that they were suffering connectivity issues. According to a Kommersant report, these include the game World of Tanks, gaming streaming service Twitch, FlashScore (a service used to access football scores and results), and even BitTorrent transfers. The operators of MMO game World of Warships posted to their portal to explain the problems.
“In early September, by order of Roscomnadzor, Internet providers began blocking VPN services. DPI equipment is used to execute orders by providers,” they write.
“In the process of blocking VPN services, many UDP ports were affected, including those that have been used in our game since the start of the very first alpha testing. This situation has affected not only large backbone providers, but also many local ones, of which there are a huge number on the territory of Russia.”
World of Warships says that the blocking of UDP ports prevented people from logging into their game and also caused disconnections for people already playing. Those affected should contact their ISPs, the company says, but whether this is yielding positive results is unknown.
Twitch did not respond to a request for comment but FlashScore says that it too has experienced problems. However, despite investigations, it had yet to determine what had caused the technical issues.
Roscomnadzor Rejects Blame, ISPs Aren’t So Sure
Russia’s telecoms watchdog says that despite claims to the contrary, it believes that the network issues did not appear as a result of its work.
“When implementing measures to block VPN, the specified UDP ports were not blocked,” a spokesperson said. Sources inside several ISPs in Russia aren’t so sure.
“[S]ources in the Big Four operators said that they had already tested their own networks and that the reason for the difficulties was the operation of the TSPU equipment (technical means of countering threats), which Roskomnadzor installed on the networks within the framework of the law on ‘Sovereign RUnet‘,” Kommersant reports.
Blocking Providers Just One Part of Russia’s Stance Towards VPNs
As reported back in June, Russia is attacking VPNs on multiple fronts. Every week, Roscomnadzor sends orders to Google to remove hundreds of URLs of sites and services that reportedly allow access to pirated content.
Unfortunately, Russian law does allow Google to share the precise URLs being targeted but searches on the Lumen Database confirm the existence of takedowns affecting more than half a million links in the past two years.