The Russian government has cracked down on VPN services, ordering them to begin blacklisting websites the government finds objectionable. Multiple VPN services, including NordVPN, ExpressVPN, IPVanish, and HideMyAss, are reportedly affected by the announcement. TorGuard also received a notice but has pulled out of Russia as a result.
This is part of a broader push in Russia to limit access to internet-anonymizing services like VPNs. Over the past four years, Russia has cracked down on a number of freedoms and instituted/evolved its own internet monitoring systems. The country has been working to test its own intranet in a scenario in which access to the net outside Russia is unavailable or disrupted. The test is also viewed as an evaluation of whether Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications (Roskomnazor) is capable of routing all traffic through a few key points, possibly as part of a censorship test.
The government has ordered VPN services to connect to the Roskomnazor database and block access to the sites listed within it. They are also ordered to turn over all details of their operators. The legal order provided to TorGuard states:
In accordance with paragraph 5 of Article 15.8 of the Federal Law No. 149-FZ of 27.07.2006 “On Information, Information Technology and on Protection of Information” hereby we are informing you about the necessity to get connected to the Federal state informational system of the blocked informational sources and networks within thirty working days from the receipt.
Once upon a time, it was practically an article of faith in tech circles the internet would effectively defeat any attempt to create a censorship regime within a country. Phrases like “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” were taken to mean that inevitably, attempts to control the flow of information would fail. Time has not been kind to these predictions. China’s Great Firewall has not fallen. The internet’s ability to route around censorship was not an infallible characteristic but a property that emerged as a result of both the culture of the people who used it and the regulatory regime that has governed its existence. Neither China nor Russia has managed to create a perfect censorship machine, but neither have they been defeated in these efforts.
This new effort to require VPNs to begin blacklisting sites may be related to a new law Russian President Vladimir Putin signed last week. The Russian government has banned “blatant disrespect” of the state, its officials, or Russian society, as well as declaring it illegal to share “false information of public interest, shared under the guise of fake news.” By forcing VPNs to begin banning blacklisted sites as defined by Roskomnazor, the government is ensuring it can prevent citizens from accessing information whether they use a VPN or not while simultaneously gathering data on who operates VPNs in Russia for potential future action. Any law banning “disrespect” of Russian society, individuals, or the government is vague enough to be deployed against virtually any target the government might want to aim at. That’s undoubtedly the point.
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