The latest stage of the Russian Governments concerted efforts to crack down on online freedoms appears likely to be an attempt to legislate to block VPNs and other tools which let users operate online anonymously.
Earlier this week, the Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Government agency in charge of regulating telecom and media, is reported to have asked VPN providers operating in the country to block Russian users from accessing any sites which are not freely available on the internet in Russia.
This amounts to a significant number of sites and knowing that many people sign up for a VPN precisely to access censored content most VPN providers will not comply.
One small VPN provider, which was blocked in the country and did subsequently comply, is called HideMy.Name. Markus Saar, a representative of the VPN told online research company Stratfor that they were still not unblocked. Instead, Russian officials called on him to further restrict user access.
If this sounds exactly how cyber-criminals behave when extorting money through ransomware attacks, then the similarity wasn’t lost on us either.
Legislation to block VPNs
There are also reports that legislation is in the process of being drafted in Russia which would legalise the blocking of VPNs in Russia if they refuse to comply with Russian state censorship and agree to block users from accessing sites which are blacklisted in the country.
It has been suggested that the initiative for this has come from the Russian Security Council, but that the nuts and bolts of the legislation are being left to the Roskomnadzor and the Media Communication Union, which represents Russian ISPs.
Whilst there doesn’t appear to be any official confirmation of this new law at the present time, it is thought that the same law could try and ban search engines from linking to this content as well, with fines of up to 700,000 roubles (approximately $12,400) being issued to those who fail to comply. Persistent offenders will be blocked by the Russian authorities.
A form of this law does appear to already exist in Russia as courts there have censured anonymising software for accessing blocked content before and Roskomvoboda, a Russian human rights organization, claims that more than 100 such tools have already been blocked in the country.
And of course, blocking access to a VPN is much easier said than done. As Netflix and other broadcasts who have attempted to block VPNs have found out, it is a challenge that swiftly turns into a game of cat-and-mouse because blocking individual IP Addresses of VPN servers is the only way to stop people accessing them, but it is quite easy for VPNs to switch IP Address.
So, whilst Russia might be keen on blocking VPNs in the country, whether they legislate on the matter or not, it is a task that is likely to be beyond their relatively meagre resources.
Twitter caves to Russian pressure
But have had more joy in forcing Twitter to adhere to their strict new online surveillance laws. Because they informed the Roskomnadzor yesterday that they would comply with the recent legislation passed by the Russian Duma (Parliament) which required all online data about Russian citizens to be held in Russia.
Under the terms of the law, all such data must be stored for at least 3 years and be made accessible to Russian law enforcement agencies upon request. Twitter, along with Facebook and LinkedIn had previously resisted the new laws, but after LinkedIn was blocked in Russia last year, Twitter now seems to have decided to put profit before principle and cave into demands from the Russian regime.
For Russian Twitter users who are now concerned about the security of their social media data online, the best solution is to use a VPN to encrypt all of your data and anonymise it online. By connecting to Twitter via a VPN server located outside Russia, your data will not be stored in Russia, but in another country where it will, hopefully at least, be a little more secure.