Russia has stepped up its online censorship programme once more with VPNs the target of their latest assault on online freedom.
It is reported that ten of the biggest VPN providers, including ExpressVPN, IPVanish, and NordVPN have received ultimatums [in Russian] from the Russian authorities demanding that they block access to the various sites which have been outlawed in Russia by the Putin regime.
The demand appears to be a tacit admission by the Russian authorities that its attempts to ban VPNs in Russia have been an abject failure.
Having been unable to stop Russian internet users from connecting to VPNs to get around the country’s oppressive online censorship regime and to hide from state internet surveillance, they now appear to have resorted to threats instead.
What has Russia demanded?
According to the Russian internet oversight body, the Roscomnadzor, they have in the past few days sent out compliance letters to ten of the biggest and most popular VPNs still accessible in Russia.
The contents of the letter were simple. It threatened each of these VPNs that if they didn’t comply with Russian state online censorship laws, they too would find themselves blacklisted and blocked in Russia. TorGuard has published its letter in full.
It reads (in Russian and English), “In accordance with paragraph 5 of Article 15.8 of the Federal Law No. 149-FZ of 27.07.2006… we are informing you about the necessity to get connected to the Federal state informational system of the blocked information sources and networks [FGIS] within thirty working days.”
The Roscomnadzor is demanding that all of the VPNs connect to their FGIS, which is basically their list of blocked sites. In other words, you block these sites or we’ll block you.
How have the VPNs responded?
TorGuard’s reaction has been swift. They have decided to withdraw from Russia completely. They have wiped their servers in Moscow and St. Petersburg and ceased all work with data centres in Russia.
Some providers may choose to follow TorGuard’s lead. But others are already digging their heels in. VyprVPN has put up a blog post confirming they plan to continue to operate in Russia in defiance of the order.
“We will continue to provide uncensored access to the Internet in Russia and around the world,” they wrote on their website. “We will not cooperate with the Russian government in their efforts to censor VPN services.”
They concluded by saying, “We are committed to providing Internet users around the world with the tools needed to access news and information without censorship. We will continue to honour our commitment to fight for a free Internet, this time in Russia.”
Other major VPNs can be expected to follow VyprVPN’s lead although they are likely to be taking their own legal advice before making any formal statements.
It is worth noting that, while some VPNs may choose to withdraw from any physical presence they may have in Russia, they will all still be available to use by Russian internet users.
While Torguard will no longer be able to offer Russian servers, they will still be able to help Russian internet users to connect to servers outside Russia and so evade the Putin regimes online censorship and surveillance.
The same is true of all of the named VPNs regardless of how they decide to respond to the Roscomnadzor’s demands.
What can we read into the Roscomnadzor’s letter?
There are a few things we can take away from this latest assault on online freedom in Russia. The first is that it is clear, as we noted above, that the Russian VPN ban now exists on paper with even the Roscomnadzor seemingly accepting it is worthless.
The second is that the Putin regime has no plans to roll back its online censorship regime anytime soon. By targeting VPNs now, it could even be said that he is likely to step things up further in the months ahead.
The demand also offers a chance to judge the how principled some of the biggest and most popular VPNs in the world are too.
For any reputable VPN, the only possible options available are to defy the order or pull out of Russia altogether. If any VPN agrees to comply with the censorship demands of Russia their credibility with their users, in both Russia and the rest of the world, will be shot.
VPNs exist to provide online security and privacy and to help facilitate a free and open internet. Any provider which is willing to accept state censorship will be in breach of one of these key facets and will do irreparable damage to their reputation.
In a competitive market, users and rivals will be watching closely. And so will we!