Russia tries to block VPNs as farcical Telegram crackdown continues

The saga of Russia’s attempts to block the encrypted messenger service Telegram continues to rumble on, with VPNs and other anonymiser software their latest targets.

According to a report in the Moscow Times, Russia’s internet regulator, the Roskomnadzor has confirmed that it has attempted to block 50 different VPNs and other anonymiser tools as part of its efforts to crack down on Telegram.

Russia’s Telegram debacle

Last month, Russian courts gave the go-ahead for the blocking of Telegram after the service refused to hand over its encryption keys, despite their arguments that it was technically impossible for them to do so.

But the attempts to block them have lurched from one farce to another and despite the attempted blockade receiving the full attention of the Russian state, the service remains resolutely online.

As we have previously reported, the Roskomnadzor has so far blocked many millions of IP Addresses in attempt to make Telegram unavailable. But as Telegram shares its servers, this has made countless other websites and online services unavailable.

Meanwhile, Telegram has stayed online as it has added a tool to its software which allows Russian users to switch IP Address if needs be. And founder Pavel Durov has pledged to do all he can to keep the service up and running in Russia.

Unsubstantiated rumours of VPN blocks

One of his steps has been to offer Bitcoin funding to VPNs which can help to keep Telegram up and running in Russia. And as we reported last week, there has been a huge spike in VPN usage in Russia since the attempted Telegram ban was introduced.

Clearly, the Roskomnadzor was aware of this and their Deputy Director, Vadim Subbotin, has now claimed in the media that they have blocked dozens of VPNs and similar services. He was quoted in the Russian media as saying, “Fifty for the time being,” when asked how many.

However, he was unable to name any of the services that had been targeted and no VPNs have so far publicly announced that their services in Russia have been affected.

As we have previously reported, Russian attempts to ban VPNs across the country have so far had no effect. For the time being, there is no evidence to suggest that this has changed, despite the claims being made by Subbotin.

Embarrassingly for the Roskomnadzor, even senior politicians in the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be using VPNs to get around their own blockade.

On May 1st, Duma Deputy Natalya Kostenko wrote on Facebook, “Dear friends, do not write to me on Telegram, I’m not getting your messages. Use other channels to contact me,”

One of the responses [in Russian] to her message came from Natalia Timakova, who is Press Secretary to Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev. She said, “Use a VPN! It’s simple. And it works almost all the time.”

The comment is a ringing endorsement of the continued effectiveness of VPNs in Russia and massively awkward for the Roskomnadzor, which is supposed to have blocked not only VPNs but also Telegram too.

Is Viber next to be ‘blocked’?

Meanwhile, there are also strong suggestions from Russian authorities that, despite the botched efforts to block Telegram, their online censorship ambitions have not been dimmed and Viber could be the next service to be targeted.

Last week, Russian Communications Minister, Nikolai Nikiforov was reported as having told journalists that if Viber had ‘problems’ handing their encryption keys over to Russian authorities, they were likely to face similar court actions to Telegram.

However, Subbotin subsequently denied that the Roskomnadzor had any plans to add Viber to their registry of “information-dissemination organizers”; a move which would require them to hand over encryption keys.

These contradictory messages from the heart of the Russian regime appear to be indicative of the chaos currently engulfing this policy area. There have even been rumours that the Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov has resigned as a result of the Telegram farce.

This is yet to be confirmed and it also remains unclear whether Viber’s position in Russia really is under threat.

But one thing that is clear from the latest shenanigans in Russia is that VPNs continue to function well in Putin’s Russia and provide an essential window to allow Russian citizens to circumvent state censorship and enjoy access to a free and open internet.

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