The legislation aimed to prevent citizens from circumventing ISP blockades with the use of services such as VPNs, proxies, Tor, and other anonymizing services. The theory was that if VPNs were found to be facilitating access to banned sites, they too would find themselves on Russia’s national Internet blacklist.
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The list is maintained by local telecoms watchdog Rozcomnadzor and currently contains many tens of thousands of restricted domains. In respect of VPNs, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs is tasked with monitoring ‘unblocking’ offenses, which they are then expected to refer to the telecoms watchdog for action.
The legislation caused significant uproar both locally and overseas and was widely predicted to signal a whole new level of censorship in Russia. However, things haven’t played out that way since, far from it. Since being introduced November 1, 2017, not a single VPN has been cautioned over its activities, much less advised to block or cease and desist.
The revelation comes via Russian news outlet RBC, which received an official confirmation from Rozcomnadzor itself that no VPN or anonymization service had been asked to take action to prevent access to blocked sites. Given the attention to detail when passing the law, the reasons seem extraordinary.
While Rozcomnadzor is empowered to put VPN providers on the blacklist, it must first be instructed to do so by the FSB, after that organization has carried out an investigation. Once the FSB gives the go-ahead, Rozcomnadzor can then order the provider to connect itself to the federal state information system, known locally as FGIS.
FGIS is the system that contains the details of nationally blocked sites and if a VPN provider does not interface with it within 30 days of being ordered to do so, it too will be added to the blocklist by Rozcomnadzor. Trouble is, Rozcomnadzor hasn’t received any requests to contact VPNs from higher up the chain, so they can’t do anything.
“As of today, there have been no requests from the members of the RDD [operational and investigative activities] and state security regarding anonymizers and VPN services,” a Roskomnadzor spokesperson said.
However, the problems don’t end there. RBC quotes Karen Ghazaryan, an analyst at the Russian Electronic Communications Association (RAEC), who says that even if it had received instructions, Rozcomnadzor wouldn’t be able to block the VPN services in question for both technical and legal reasons.
“Roskomnadzor does not have leverage over most VPN services, and they can not block them for failing to comply with the law, because Roskomnadzor does not have ready technical solutions for this, and the law does not yet have relevant by-laws,” the expert said.
“Copying the Chinese model of fighting VPNs in Russia will not be possible because of its high cost and the radically different topology of the Russian segment of the Internet,” Ghazaryan adds.
This apparent inability to act is surprising, not least since millions of Russian Internet users are now using VPNs, anonymizers, and similar services on a regular basis. Ghazaryan puts the figure as high as 25% of all Russian Internet users.
However, there is also a third element to Russia’s VPN dilemma – how to differentiate between VPNs used by the public and those used in a commercial environment. China is trying to solve this problem by forcing VPN providers to register and align themselves with the state. Russia hasn’t tried that, yet.
“The [blocking] law says that it does not apply to corporate VPN networks, but there is no way to distinguish them from services used for personal needs,” concludes Sarkis Darbinian from the anti-censorship project, Roskomvoboda.
This week, Russia’s Ministry of Culture unveiled yet more new proposals for dealing with copyright infringement via a bill that would allow websites to be blocked without a court order. It’s envisioned that if pirate material is found on a site and its operator either fails to respond to a complaint or leaves the content online for more than 24 hours, ISPs will be told to block the entire site.