Russia’s Crusade against Internet Freedom: Progress and Solutions

In 2012, Russia’s government has started a censorship of the internet content. The start was pretty innocent and even understandable. Their blacklist included topics related to child pornography, suicide, illegal drugs, etc. However, later on the blacklisted topics became more controversial and undefined, such as “suspected extremism”, “calling for illegal meetings”, “inciting hatred”, or “violating the established order”. Russia’s government allowed Roskomnadzor (Russia’s state communications regulator) flexible interpretation and inclusion of a wide array of content. And even most popular websites such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reddit and Wikipedia have experienced threats, fines or even blocks.

Russia’s data retention laws

Russia has passed data retention law back in 2014. It requires all web services to store the user data of Russian citizens on Russian servers. Also, it requires operators of free Wi-Fi hotspots to collect personal details of all users and store the data for at least several months. In 2016, this law was updated by requiring telecommunication operators to store recordings of phone conversations, text messages and users’ internet traffic for up to 6 months, as well as metadata for up to 3 years. This data and  “all other information necessary” is available to authorities on request and without a court order. Nowadays, all companies that deal with any kind of information related to citizen activity and communication online, and that are registered in Russia are not permitted to allow unidentified users to create profiles or use their service in any way.

In 2012, quite a few Russian and English Wikipedia articles were blocked for being related in any way to the first blacklisted topics. Some entire websites were blocked too for having a single mention of marijuana, such as entire Librusec library’s site for having a description of marijuana soup, before removing The Anarchist Cookbook that had the recipe.

Russia’s bans reached its peak

In 2015, LinkedIn was blocked after they ignored Russia’s demand for them to store Russian users data in Russian servers. 

In 2018, Russia banned Telegram after not being able to give access to encrypted messages of Russian users.

In 2019, Russia blocked ProtonMail after accusing them of facilitating bomb threats. The ban has been enforced via the blockage of over 15.8 million IP addresses. Also, permanent ban warnings were sent out to Facebook and Twitter for not following server location and data retention laws.

Of course, there are ways for Russia citizens to go around these blocks and Russia’s government knows it. VPN is viewed as one of the most effective ways to go around internet censorship. Russia’s government knows it and even tried to ban them back in 2017, but they don’t have the needed technical solutions to actually implement it even two years later. They are trying to demand VPNs to block the blacklisted sites, but it still seems like an empty threat. Some bigger providers, such as PIA, had their websites blocked in Russia a few years ago but many are still working with no issues. VPN is the most popular way the government’s internet censorship in many countries. It hides your IP, encrypts your data, protects you from ISP or government snooping and allows you to bypass network or regional restrictions. 

As VPNMentor listed (article about VPN usage in Russia), the most important factors while choosing a VPN for Russia are as follows:

  1. A foreign provider with lots of servers.
  2. Advanced features such as kill switch and built-in ad blockers.
  3. Advanced encryption for bypassing network restrictions.

Here are some good VPN options:

Surfshark

Surfshark is based in British Virgin Islands and has over 800 servers in 50 countries. They only use the most advanced protocols have plenty of additional security features such as Kill Switch, CleanWeb (ad and malware blocker), MultiHop (connection through two VPN servers) and some special advanced settings for restricted areas such as NoBorders or Private Mode for secure subscription purchase. Also, many of their security features are enabled by default, including IP address masking, Zero-Knowledge DNS, IPV6 leak protection, WebRTC protection, and all of their servers are obfuscated on OpenVPN protocol. Overall, it’s a high quality service for a really good price, and it’s not suffering from common problems of being too well-known yet.

NordVPN

NordVPN is one of the best known providers by now. They are located in Panama and have well over 5k servers in 60 countries. Their additional features include CyberSec (ad and malware blocker), Double VPN (connection through two VPN servers), Kill Switch and Onion over VPN servers. NordVPN is really popular, so they do  sometimes get blocked in such areas as China, but they are always quick to react and restore the access for their users. NordVPN is user-friendly and strong provider.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is based in British Virgin Islands and has around 3k servers in 94 countries. It’s a high-quality provider with network level kill switch and split tunnelling features. They are quite popular to be used in China and do get locked out sometimes, but are able to resolve those blocks quite fast. All in all, Express is a great choice, though it’s one of the most expensive providers and has less features, but not all of us need some advanced stuff as long as we are secured.

Conclusion

It’s quite clear that Russia’s ultimate goal seems to be creating something similar to China’s Great Firewall with country-wide internet which would stay up even if it was fully disconnected from the rest of the world provider, service, and even satellite wise. Though, it’s not quite clear yet if the main reason is to keep Russians away from international Internet, or to keep the rest of the world away from Russia’s network. In any case, it seems like a huge step backwards and with the country banning any kind of opposition it’s very unlikely that it could be stopped any time soon.  

Update: Russia decided to block all major VPN providers, read more to learn which VPNs will work in Russia.

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