President Putin has followed up on threats to restrict the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in Russia. The new law, which was signed into action at the weekend, will come into effect on 1 November 2017. It will make it illegal for Russian citizens to use VPNs to access restricted content.
The legislation also bans the use of “anonymizers” to access content banned by the Kremlin. That means it will also be illegal for Russians to use Tor and proxies in order to circumvent censorship. The Kremlin has said that the law will not be used to target law-abiding citizens. As such, it isn’t the use of a VPN that will become illegal come 1 November, but rather the act of using one to access restricted websites.
Despite this technicality, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be forced to block access to websites that supply VPN services. In addition, they will begin to blacklist other forms of circumvention technologies, such as proxies and Smart Domain Name System (DNS) services.
With that in mind, the new law will make it much harder in practice to get a VPN subscription. In fact, come November it may actually become necessary to use a VPN or proxy in order to unblock VPN websites and get a VPN subscription!
Negative Impacts for Digital Privacy
Leonid Levin (chairman of the Duma’s committee on information policy and technology) has come forward to reassure the general public that the legislation does not introduce any “new bans for law-abiding citizens.” However, despite those assurances, from November Russian citizens will find it much harder to protect their digital privacy.
The official party line is that the new law is to stop people from accessing websites that contain information about drugs such as cannabis and magic mushrooms. However, that is just a convenient scapegoat. In the third term of his presidency, Putin has vastly increased the number of websites that ISPs must blacklist. Any content that is considered to be critical of the government is blocked. This makes it very difficult for journalists, activists, political opposers, and any other citizens to access many websites.
For this reason, the use of VPN services is vital for people who wish to access the entire, uncensored internet.
Privacy Is a Target
What’s more, despite Levin’s claims, it is clear that it is not just a VPN’s ability to access restricted content that displeases the Kremlin. A separate law also passed at the weekend (and due to come into effect in January 2018), requires Russians to hand over their phone numbers in order to use instant messaging apps.
That law also requires instant messaging services to block users at the authorities’ request if they are found to be spreading content considered illegal in Russia. This demonstrates Putin’s will to erode Russia’s digital privacy and stop people from privately communicating behind the government’s back.
The passing of the two laws makes it clear that the Kremlin is seeking to halt the use of VPNs for concealing citizens’ online activities. The message couldn’t be clearer: communicating within an encrypted shroud of privacy is undesirable and should be obstructed and opposed.
“I am deeply concerned by decisions such as those by Russia and China to block off VPNs since these are mostly used by normal people who wish to access and exchange information in private. This proposed action by Russia and China is prima facie neither necessary nor proportionate in a democratic society and I plan to attempt to engage with both countries about such matters.
“If they wish to monitor the activities of individuals who may genuinely threaten state security or who are perpetrators of serious crimes then there are other, more proportionate, technological means to do so. No state should be permitted to lay down such a blanket intrusion on the privacy of its citizens.”
The VPN crackdown comes just in time for the Russian presidential election in March 2018. Putin will be hoping to stop people from using VPNs to seek out website content that criticizes his government. If he wins the election – and it is likely he will – Putin will get another six years at the helm.
Considering how frighteningly authoritarian Russia already is, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this law being used as an excuse to throw political dissenters in prison during the run up to the election. For people who oppose Putin, the use of a VPN or proxy is almost a given. With that in mind, it would be all too easy for Putin’s government to allege VPN use in order to temporarily silence those dissenting voices.
Cannataci concurs with my opinion, and is also anxious about the way that this law might be executed:
“Enforcing a ban on VPN use is technically extremely difficult. Some success would be registered against less sophisticated users of VPN but the more tech-savvy users would quickly find various ways and means to disguise their VPN traffic as other traffic. Which of course brings the whole rationale of such laws into question: are they being conceived to simply be able to throw the book i.e. an even heavier book at dissenters?”
More of the Same
This isn’t the first time in recent years that Putin has passed laws that exert a negative influence on digital privacy. A law passed in 2015 specified that all user data created by Russian citizens must be stored on servers within Russia. Last year, the Kremlin also passed a mandatory data retention law that forces IT firms and ISPs to retain Russians’ web browsing histories and meta-data for 12 months.
Those laws already caused the US-based VPN provider Private Internet Access (PIA) to discontinue providing access to Russian servers. Their fear was that the VPN would not be able to keep its zero logs promise to subscribers due to that legislation. I contacted PIA to find out how the firm saw this new law affecting VPN users in Russia. The firm told me that some VPNs had already started blocking particular websites in order to comply with Russia’s blacklist. PIA refuses to do this and, for this reason, believes it will be blacked out from 1 November:
“Some VPN providers in Russia have already acquiesced to blocking and censoring whatever the Russian government wants by implementing the same censorship blacklist of URLs that ISPs and telcos have to block. VPNs that don’t comply will have their domains added to their blacklists. We’ll see whether or not Russia ever blocks VPN connections themselves, the way China has done. So, in essence, the Russian VPN ban will be enforced by censoring the URLs of VPNs such as Private Internet Access that won’t comply with Russian censorship requests no matter what.”
VPN Use will Continue
For people living in Russia who are likely to want to use a VPN after the embargo kicks in, my recommendation is to get a subscription now, before ISPs begin blocking provider websites. In addition, Russians should seek to get a reliable VPN that is dedicated to privacy and that has a “stealth mode” feature.
VPN stealth modes bypass firewalls and are already used by people in China, the UAE, Iran, and other countries that block the use of VPNs. Stealth mode VPNs disguise VPN-encrypted traffic as regular https (TLS or SSL) encryption.
Due to the fact that https traffic regularly uses those forms of encryption (for the secure transmission of credit card details and passwords, for example) this method of concealing VPN traffic is highly effective. Stealth modes make it much, much harder to tell that a VPN is being used. However, the use of a stealth mode VPN could still be uncovered by using deep packet inspection (though this is generally a highly targeted and expensive process).
It is also worth remembering that many businesses use VPNs in order to allow their staff to connect to company servers remotely. As such, it remains clear that this legislation actually enacts a ban on specific VPN usage, as opposed to VPNs themselves. For this reason, using a VPN in a legal capacity will still be permitted within Russia, and law-abiding citizens that tow the party line will not be victimized for using a VPN.
With that in mind, the use of a VPN for unblocking the US Netflix catalog – or some other service, for example – is highly unlikely to get anybody reprimanded. It seems far more likely that this law will only be enforced in very specific cases against political dissenters who have attracted the attention of the Kremlin.
As such, this law can be considered a highly authoritarian move on Putin’s part. It gives him the power to much more easily exert control over his subjects during this crucial run up to the election.
The UN’s special rapporteur, Joe Cannataci, agrees that any ban on VPN use is, in reality, unenforceable:
“It will be terribly difficult for the Russian authorities or indeed any other authorities to actually enforce a VPN ban or even police it in any way. I would have expected such governments to have learned from history enough to appreciate that attempting to clamp down on free-spirited citizens in such a manner is both ineffective and counterproductive in many ways.”
China App Store Blocks Coming to Russia?
Unfortunately for Russians, this new law could lead to VPN apps being pulled from the Google and Apple app stores. That is exactly what has just occurred in China where an even stricter VPN ban has forced Apple to pull around 60 VPN apps from the Play Store in order to comply with legislation.
No matter which way you look at it, this legislation is bound to negatively affect Russian citizens’ ability to gain access to a VPN. For that reason, Russian citizens are advised to get a VPN subscription before the ISP blocks commence and subscribing to a VPN becomes much harder.
Finally, I took the opportunity to ask Mr Cannataci if he ever envisioned such poorly thought out policies spreading to the West. He commented:
“I do not see bans on VPNs spreading to the West since generally the quality of advice tendered to and public pressure on politicians in the West is at a level where such foolishness can normally be averted – though not always since some Western politicians have recently also demonstrated themselves not to be immune to such bone-headed ideas when it comes to technology, surveillance and control over society. Moreover, Western Governments have already started experimenting with legislation which would permit more proportionate means for carrying out legitimate targeted surveillance.”
Opinions are the writer’s own.
Title image credit: Catarina Belova/Shutterstock.com
Image credits: Nikolay Androsov/Shutterstock.com, Agnieszka Skalska/Shutterstock.com, Alexander Yakimov/Shutterstock.com, ymgerman/Shutterstock.com