Russia’s Site-Blocking System Isn’t Performing & Could Even Collapse

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Russia's site-blocking systems aimed at restricting access to copyrighted content and anything else deemed undesirable are not performing to the standards the government demands. Blocking access to internet resources requires lots of hardware but due to sanctions, there are fears in Russia that a breakdown in systems operations may be just months away.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been going on for more than a month. It isn’t going to plan.

In parallel with the terrible images being shared around the world, Russia is using its infamous site-blocking systems to deny access to websites that dare to challenge the Kremlin’s narrative of Putin’s ‘Special Operation’.

Telecoms regulator Roscomnadzor is working harder than ever to maintain its blockades against everything from Google News, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to the thousands of pirate sites and other resources on the country’s blacklists.

But, like the invasion itself, things aren’t going to plan here either.

Urgent Checks Carried Out On Ability to Block

A little over a week ago, local telecoms operators supplying internet access to Russian citizens were ordered to carry out “urgent checks” on their ability to continue blocking sites deemed illegal by the state. ISPs were required to carry out an audit and liaise with telecoms regulator Roscomnadzor.

Today is the reporting deadline but according to several sources, problems are apparent in the system.

With accurate and critical reporting being all but strangled by the state, it is not absolutely clear who or what ordered the review but the consensus is that prescribed blocking standards aren’t being met. As previously reported, local torrent site RuTracker suddenly found itself unblocked earlier this month, reportedly due to issues at an ISP.

Problems are also reported with the Roscomnadzor-controlled ‘TSPU’ Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) system embedded into the networks of around 80 local ISPs and recently used to restrict Tor, VPNs and Twitter traffic.

Since there is almost no detailed public information on how the TSPU system works, it’s almost impossible to say what the issues are or what caused them. That being said, reports suggest that TPSU is not working on all ISPs and on others it is not configured properly. However, if today’s issues are a concern for the Kremlin, in a few months the problem is likely to get a whole lot worse.

Russia’s Internet Sector is Under Threat

As sanctions start to bite, Russia is coming under increasing pressure. This includes a lack of telecommunications equipment due to a shortage of components, something that will directly affect not just the effectiveness of Russia’s blocking systems, but the entire telecoms sector.

According to a Kommersant report citing a review by Russia’s RSPP Commission for Communications and IT, the dire economic conditions have led to an assessment that ISPs and other telecoms companies only have enough hardware reserves to ensure operability of infrastructure for four to six months.

Add in a 40% rise in purchase prices for equipment and predictions that up to 30% of technical experts could leave the country in the next few months, it’s not hard to see the crisis ahead. For Russian authorities, however, the desire to block seems greater than ever, as evidenced by an instruction this week to block a section of Wikipedia.

The order, dated March 28 (pdf), demands the blocking of information related to the ‘Russian invasion of Ukraine‘ which appears to accurately describe just that.

According to the Kremlin, however, it contains “false reports” of acts of terrorism and false information “distributed under the guise of reliable messages.” The page poses a “threat or harm to life” and could lead to a “mass violation of public order”, the notice adds.

Citizens of Russia can file an appeal (here and here) to have a resource unblocked but it seems unlikely much attention will be paid to these in the current environment.

If Russia’s blocking system does break down, copyright holders will no doubt be disappointed. But for most of the rest of the world and growing sections of Russian society, it can’t come soon enough.

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