The ‘Unreality’ of Russian Internet Censorship — Is There an Escape?
What is that place where you cannot sing along to “Dumb Ways To Die” video as it’s marked as a “suicide propoganda”? Where are LGBT and feminist online movements banned for being “propaganda of non-traditional sex relations” or an “insult of the feelings of believers”? Where is any criticism of authorities on social media marked as an insult, extremism or calling for illegal actions? It is a place where the line between reality-fiction-propaganda blurs, “it reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action.” (Quote from Peter Pomerantsev’s article on Russia’s information warfare).
The internet censorship in Russia has been growing rapidly for the last 7 years. However, this year they are taking the first big steps towards their plan of completely disconnecting Russia from worldwide internet. The first tests are planned to happen this April and the project is scheduled to be finished by 2020. All of this comes as no surprise as Putin shared his views back in 2014 by saying that the Internet is a CIA project and Russia has to be protected from it.
Progress of internet censorship in Russia
In 2012, the first countrywide censorship measures were taken by Russia’s government. The first blacklist mostly included topics related to child pornography, suicide and illegal drugs. However, in the last few years the censorship criteria started to cover more and more topics that got more controversial and undefined, such as “suspected extremism”, “calling for illegal meetings”, “inciting hatred”, or “violating the established order”.
Some websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, GitHub, and Wikipedia have experienced temporary blocks in the past. Quite a few Wikipedia pages and some Facebook/Reddit posts are already permanently blocked for Russian users. Also, Roskomnadzor (Russia’s state communications regulator) already fined Google 500,000 roubles ($7,530) and threatened to block it in the future if Google doesn’t comply by removing blacklisted sites from its search results.
Data retention or “Bloggers law” has been passed in 2014. Among other changes, it requires all web services to store the user data of Russian citizens on Russian servers. Also, this law requires operators of free/public Wi-Fi hotspots to collect personal details of all users, identify them using passports, and store the data. In 2016, this law was updated with “Yarovaya law” package which extended data retention by requiring telecom 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. As of 2018, companies registered in Russia as “organizers of information dissemination”, such as online messaging applications, are not permitted to allow unidentified users.
Of course, data retention not only helps to control Russian users, but it also contributes to big data collection that can and is used by Russia’s government in many ways. It all gives the power to create the unreality that journalist Peter Pomerev noted in his earlier referred article. One of the best examples of Russia’s cyber-sabotage was fake Twitter accounts’ (“Russian trolls”) activity during the US Presidential election back in 2016 (you can read more about this exact case and the insights made analysing it here). This practice of gathering big data and restricting other sources of information reinforce each other: big data helps to target specific audiences with propaganda and internet restrictions obliterate the possibility of constructive criticism.
Some of the notable blocks:
In 2015, LinkedIn and few other websites were blocked in the aftermath of Russia’s demand for them to store Russian users data in Russian servers. Also, a number of Bitcoin related websites were blocked because they “contribute to shadow economy”.
In 2018, Russia banned Telegram as they failed to give the Russia government access to encrypted messages.
In 2019, it came the time of ProtonMail. Federal Security Service obtained and published the order after the agency accused the company and several other email providers of facilitating bomb threats. Twenty-six internet addresses were blocked right away, including several servers used by Tor users. The ban has been enforced via the blockage of over 15.8 million IP addresses. Some IPs associated with Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform are included in the block, due to Telegram’s use of these platforms. This caused quite a lot of damage due to the usage of the platforms by other services including retail, Mastercard SecureCode, TamTam (mail.ru messaging service), and Twitch. Also, permanent ban warnings were sent out to Facebook and Twitter for not following server location and data retention laws.
Is there a way to go around this
Yes, of course. Some of the blocked sites are trying to help you themselves. ProtonMail is already working on restoring the access.
“The block does not prevent Russian citizens from using or accessing ProtonMail, it just makes it difficult for Russian mail servers (like mail.ru) to communicate with ProtonMail. As of now, the blocks are still in place, but we have implemented some technical measures to largely reduce the impact of the blocks, so services in Russia are operational at this time. If the situation changes, we will take additional measures as necessary to ensure the proper functioning of ProtonMail in Russia.”
Also, there are VPNs (Virtual Private Network). 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. Some bigger providers, such as PIA, had their websites blocked in Russia Thus, VPN is the most popular way to fight growing internet censorship in Russia and other restricted countries. It hides your IP, encrypts your data, protects you from ISP or government snooping and allows you to bypass network or regional restrictions.
Governments can exert some influence over the internet within their borders without being authoritarian—if they act in a way that protects citizens from cybersecurity threats, such as identity theft or computer hacking—provided those actions are also backed by democratic laws and procedures that prevent the abuse of power (e.g., using cyberinsecurity as an excuse for censorship).
As VPNMentor listed (article about VPN usage in Russia), the most important factors while choosing a VPN for Russia are as follows:
- A foreign provider (not based in Russia) with lots of servers
- Advanced features such as kill switch, built-in ad blockers, anti-leak protection.
- Advanced encryption possibility that helps you by-pass regional restrictions.
Here are some good VPN options:
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 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 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.
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.
When you use online services, like email or web browsing, your data travels across the network and gets stored on servers that belong to those companies. Almost all online services and Internet-connected devices have privacy settings you can update to restrict the amount of information collected and/or posted publicly online.