Back in March, Russia’s online regulators turned their fire on VPN providers.
The Roscomnadzor wrote to a number of the biggest VPN providers including ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and IPVanish, demanding that they comply with the country’s intrusive new state censorship legislation.
VPNs stand as one against Russian censorship
The letter gave the VPN providers 30-days to comply. If they failed, they were told that their services would be blocked in Russia.
With the exception of Kaspersky, a company widely thought to have links to the Russian state, all VPNs publicly refused to play ball. NordVPN stated that complying with the request would be in breach of their customer service agreement.
VyprVPN rejected Russian state censorship as did IPVanish, OpenVPN, and a number of other providers. The VPN community was as one in rejecting state censorship by the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin.
A few VPNs even went so far as to pull their Russian servers in order to ensure the privacy of their users.
Three months on and nothing further has happened. Some had assumed that with their bluff called; the Russian authorities had gone back into their box in much the same way they did after announcing that VPNs were banned in Russia back in 2018 only to then take no action to enforce the new law.
But now, the Roscomnadzor has renewed hostilities.
A new 30-day deadline
In an interview with the Interfax news agency (in Russian), Alexander Zharov, the head of the Roscomnadzor confirmed that his agency was now planning to belatedly block access to those VPNs that refuse to comply.
“All the others did not answer, moreover, they wrote on their websites that they would not comply with Russian law,” he said. “And the law says unequivocally if the company refuses to comply with the law – it should be blocked.”
When asked about the timeline for this blocking to take place, Zharov commented that the matter would be resolved within a month. In other words, the VPNs in question still have another 30-days to comply.
There is no suggestion that any will cave into this fresh pressure from the Russian state, so the onus now will be on the Roscomnadzor to follow through on their threats. It remains to be seen how effective this will be.
It seems likely that the websites of all affected VPNs will be placed on Russia’s state blacklist. This list, known locally as the FGIS, is routinely blocked by Russian ISPs which in theory will stop Russians from signing and downloading these VPNs.
But similar blocks are already in place in Communist China and other authoritarian countries with only a limited effect. VPNs like ExpressVPN routinely create mirror sites with different URLs which are not blocked and still allow users in these countries to access their service. Many will no doubt adopt the same approach in Russia.
VPNs still the answer in Russia
Essentially, if a VPN chooses to try and remain operational in Russia (and some may not) they have a pretty good chance of succeeding.
This is great news for Russian internet users as it means they will still be able to access the huge range of websites and services that the Putin regime is trying to block.
Even if this blocking plan was to prove successful, it will only affect ten VPNs. There are still plenty of other VPNs on the market who are not currently being targeted by the Roscomnadzor.
This is a fact that Alexander Zharov acknowledged in his interview. “These ten VPNs do not exhaust the entire list of proxy programs available to our citizens. I don’t think there will be a tragedy if they are blocked, although I feel very sorry about it.”
Somehow there is a lack of sincerity in this comment but it does serve to emphasise that even Putin’s acolytes in Russia are aware that their efforts to censor the internet are a fight against the tide.
If Russian internet users are determined to get around their country’s censorship, there will always be a VPN. And for the time being, their best bet remains to use a VPN.