VPN users in Russia were braced for big problems last November when a new law came into force requiring all anonymiser services to comply with state censorship laws or be blocked. The expectation was that this would lead to most international VPNs being quickly blocked in Russia.
However, to date, that hasn’t been the case and all of the most popular international VPNs in Russia remain available. So why are VPNs still fully operational in Russia despite a law widely expected to lead to them being banned coming into effect?
Russia yet to try and enforce VPN ban
Well, according to the Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) this is because Russia has not yet requested any VPN service to block the sites listed on states registered of banned internet content.
Speaking to the RBC, a Roskomnadzor spokesperson said, “As of today, there have been no requests from investigators and state security regarding anonymizers and VPN services.”
Under the new law that came into force last November, the Roskomnadzor was empowered to demand all VPNs implement this state censorship within 30 days. If they failed to do so, the Roskomnadzor would then be able to block access to that VPN in Russia.
Most international VPNs, such as IPVanish and ExpressVPN, would naturally refuse to comply with such a demand. They would argue, with some justification, that they are not based in Russia and therefore not subject to Russian law.
Indeed, an ExpressVPN spokesperson said as much to the RBC. “As a company focused on protecting the confidentiality and freedom of information on the Internet, we will continue to support users, regardless of where they are located,” he said.
A CactusVPN spokesperson went even further saying “We have always supported freedom of speech and the right to free access to information, privacy on the Internet, and we condemn any actions aimed at limiting these rights in Russia and any other country.”
Lacking technical capabilities
So, why hasn’t the Roskomnadzor followed through with their threat to block these services in Russia? The answer appears to be that, quite simply, they do not have the technical capabilities to do so. Blocking a VPN is not a simple process and requires highly complex and expensive technical capabilities to do successfully.
“[The] Roskomnadzor does not have technical solutions for this, and the law does not have relevant by-laws,” explained Karen Ghazaryan, an analyst for the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC).
The other problem they face is how to distinguish between individuals who are using VPNs to evade state censorship measures and companies who use corporate VPNs for commercial purposes.
A blanket ban on VPNs could have huge economic knock-on effects if the many companies who use corporate VPNs were affected by the ban. Concerns about this have already been raised with the Russian regime by the Association of European Businesses (AEB), which represents several hundred European companies which operate in Russia.
This has already been seen in China where international companies are already struggling even before the Chinese Communist Party’s VPN ban comes fully into effect.
VPN use in Russia remains high
Support for the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia remains high, although expressing opposition to it is a risky thing to do. Indeed, last year one survey suggested that most Russians were in support of Putin’s online censorship efforts.
But despite this, VPN use in Russia to get around this censorship is high and continuing to rise. Karen Ghazaryan estimates that at least a quarter of Russians regularly use VPNs at the moment. As censorship increases so too do the number of people seeking a way to get around it.
Despite this, the Roskomnadzor has not made any effort to ban access to VPNs yet. But that may change in the future. They could start to draft by-laws which enable the existing laws to distinguish between corporate and personal VPN users.
They could also opt to spend the money needed to develop the technical know-how to try and block VPNs effectively. The Putin regime has close ties with the Chinese Communist Party and while importing their extensive system of online controls would be very expensive, it is not unimaginable that Putin would consider it money well spent.
So, while Russian people may still be able to access VPNs right now, they shouldn’t rest on their laurels. In March, there will be Presidential elections in Russia which Putin is widely expected to win, not least because he has barred all his main challengers from running against him.
Success is likely to further embolden him and may well see him double-down on online censorship and other such powers he uses to control his people and keep them in line.
VPNs remain a crucial tool for Russians to access information that is critical of the Putin regime. But Putin knows that too. And he will not be willing to tolerate that forever.