VPN and TOR Ban Looming on the Horizon for Russia

Russia blocks websites on a very large-scale but citizens often circumvent those blocks using VPNs, TOR and other anonymizing tools. The country is now looking at ways of bringing this to an end, with Russia's main web-blocking body supporting a worrying proposal by a Russian MP to ban use of these tools

spySince 2012, Russia has had legislation allowing the country’s main telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor to maintain a list of domains to be blocked by ISPs in the country.

While the usual serious crime suspects such as child abuse and terrorist sites are included, more controversial resources are also filtered, including sites that feature content about drugs and suicide. Also present are sites that fail to remove copyright content in a timely manner and in the past couple of years plenty of torrent, storage and links forums have been blocked.

Of course, where there’s a block or filter there are people ready to circumvent them and it now appears that Russia is growing tired with the ease that citizens do so. Proposals from the Duma (lower house of parliament) now indicate that the country is considering how to further limit access to “banned” content.

Speaking at Infoforum-2015, Russian MP Leonid Levin, who is deputy head of the Duma Committee on information politics, indicated that access to anonymization and circumvention tools such as TOR, VPNs and even web proxies, needs to be restricted.

“One of the factors in the formation of the Internet environment in our country has become the authority for the pre-trial blocking of websites. It allows us to block sites banned in Russia quickly enough. At the same time the pre-trial blocking of anonymizing services deserves attention, such as access to the anonymous network Tor,” Levin said.

By introducing restrictions on these systems, Levin added, it would restrict citizens’ access to blocked content, stop people transferring content anonymously, and also help to reduce the commercial distribution of malware.

Levin also called for greater powers for the Roskomnadzor watchdog, an organization that also supports the idea of locking down anonymous networks. According to Vadim Ampelonskogo, Roskomnadzor’s chief press officer, the task won’t be easy but is technically possible.

Describing the Tor network as a “den of criminals” and “ghouls, all gathered in one place”, Ampelonskogo said Roskomnadzor would find a solution to block anonymous networks if it was supported by a relevant regulatory framework.

Levin’s proposals to block anonymizing tools and networks is not new. In 2012 the topic was raised but came to nothing and in 2013 an initiative was launched by the FSB and received support from the State Duma. However, there is a growing feeling that Russia will eventually do something.

According to figures cited by Russia’s RBC, 150,000 citizens use the TOR network with up to 25% of Internet users now using some kind of VPN.

While Russia’s attack on encryption won’t be a surprise to many, other supposedly more free societies are also looking to crack down on the anonymous. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, Prime Minister David Cameron indicated that users of private services such as WhatsApp could be blocked or monitored if his government wins the next election.

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