The latest target of Russian internet censors is an app called Zello, an online communication app, which has fallen foul of new Russian laws which require all online companies to register with Russian authorities.
But if Russia wants to censor access to Zello across the country, it will have to block an astonishing 15 million IP Address across 36 Internet subnets in order to do it. And that would mean countless other websites and services would also be blocked as a result.
So, is the Russian Rozcomnadzor really willing go nuclear in such an explosive way just to block access to one app?
What is Zello?
If you haven’t heard of Zello, you are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. But Zello is another example of the type of secure communications service which the Russian regime is determined to stop its people using.
We reported only yesterday on their ongoing efforts to block access to the encrypted messaging service Telegram, while other social media services such as LinkedIn are also unavailable in the country.
Zello bills itself as a ‘walkie-talkie’ app which works as a communication tool between individuals or small groups of people. It rose to prominence last year when it was revealed that rescue workers in the US were using it to coordinate response efforts to the devastation being caused by Hurricane Harvey.
In the wake of this surge in media coverage, the number of downloads in the USA and across the world shot up, with Zello claiming to have seen its app being downloaded more than one million times in a single day.
Why Russia wants Zello blocked
In Russia, the regime of President Vladimir Putin sees apps like Zello as being a threat rather than a vital communications tool. That is because apps of this nature are frequently used by opposition groups to coordinate protests and opposition to the Putin regime.
This was the main purpose of the recently passed Yarovaya Law, which requires all online companies operating in Russia to register with the country’s telecoms watchdog, the Rozcomnadzor as well as retain user data, which must be stored in Russia, and hand over any encryption keys to the Russian authorities.
It is reported that Zello has failed to comply with the requirement to register itself with the Rozcomnadzor and as a result, it appears that they have now requested that Russian ISPs block access to Zello.
However, this is not as simple as it may sound because Zello does not operate as an isolated entity online. Instead, it uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) which means that to block Zello in Russia, the Rozcomnadzor would have to block access to a huge quantity of ISPs.
But it seems this is something they are willing to do. At least four ISPs have confirmed to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti that they have been instructed by the Rozcomnadzor to do just this.
The Rozcomnadzor’s nuclear experiment
In a letter to all Russian ISPs, the Rozcomnadzor has told them to carry out ‘an experiment’ in which they should block no fewer than 36 different Internet subnets which comprise more than 15 million IP Addresses.
Not all of these addresses are linked to AWS. It is thought that 26 of the subnets and around 13.5 million of the IP Addresses are from AWS. Others are operated by companies like Comcast, while some are based in China.
What links them all is that they cover most of the addresses from two large areas of the USA, where Zello’s data centres are based.
However, these subnets are not used exclusively by Zello but are shared with countless other online businesses too.
That means there will be an unquantified amount of collateral damage is the proposed block is put into place. Countless other online services and websites will become unavailable in Russia as a result of the Russian regimes efforts to block just one app.
How VPNs help Russians evade online censorship
The ban has not yet come into force and many experts are questioning whether the Russian regime is really willing to take such a drastic step in order to block just one app. But in Russia, it seems that almost anything is possible, so even this cannot be ruled out entirely.
However, for Russian citizens, such a move doesn’t have to mean that Zello, or any of the other online sites which could be affected, will even necessarily be unavailable.
Russians are well used to online censorship and they know that by using a reliable VPN, they are able to easily circumvent government restrictions and access the internet freely.
By downloading and subscribing to a dependable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN, they can visit any website they like, use any app they choose, and also say anything they like online, without fear of reprisals from the state.
Many already do this and if such a widespread censorship move as the one that has been suggested does come into effect, it is likely that many more will.
Russia knows that VPNs are the Achilles heel of its online censorship efforts. But as we noted above, they have also found it impossible to ban them effectively. So, for now, VPNs remain the best tool to enjoy unrestricted internet access in Putin’s Russia.