When governments take away online freedoms from educated populations, they tend to get a response, and that response can sometimes be fatal for the governments involved. At the moment, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is discovering that it’s easier to table proposals about online censorship than it is to put them into practice.
After Putin introduced proposals for a Cybersecurity Bill, thousands of Russians have taken to the streets. They might force a government climb down, but then again they could fail. And if that happens, web users in Russia need to know the implications, and how to respond.
This article will look at the history of Putin’s relationship with the internet, what this new legislation could mean, and how Russians or visitors to the country can evade censorship should the bill be passed as it stands.
A history of gradually restricting online freedom
The Cybersecurity Bill battle didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s the culmination of a process of online tightening (which, by the way, isn’t limited to Russia).
As recently as 10 years ago, this was far from the case. Most commentators saw Russia’s online world as relatively unconstrained, and there was little state filtering of what Russians could or couldn’t see.
As opposition to Putin grew from 2010 onwards, this changed. The internet came to be seen as an adversary of the government, and blacklisting was expanded to include political groups. But this was far from total, and dissidents like Pussy Riot could still use the web to gain a mass following.
In 2018, the stakes rose again, with a nationwide ban on the messenger service Telegram. Anecdotal reports suggested that the state had also started to clock out 3G and 4G coverage in areas affected by opposition demonstrations. But demonstrations against the Telegram regulations still went ahead, as protesters and their paper planes (the Telegram corporate symbol) gained worldwide headlines.
However, as 2019 dawned, Putin saw scope for additional security measures. The government confronted increasing protests, and previous digital legislation had failed to quell online dissent. Will the new measures succeed, or spark even more opposition?
What does the 2019 Cybersecurity Bill mean?
The legislation (also known as the “Digital Economy National Program”) being proposed[/url] by Moscow essentially seeks to turn Russia into a walled-off digital region whenever the state desires it. This would be very similar to the Great Firewall of China, which tightly regulates access to certain services and websites within Chinese borders.
Moscow states that this wall will be a valuable security tool, providing protection for the domestic internet should Russia be subject to a cyberattack from abroad. However, experts and dissidents are dubbing these new digital borders an “Iron Curtain” that drastically cracks down on individual freedoms.
This may sound over-dramatic, but the implications of the measures are potentially far-reaching. Foreign news sources could be rendered off-limits, and citizens would not necessarily be able to email contacts abroad. Multinational streaming platforms would be subject to new restrictions, and anything being digitally transferred from overseas could be intercepted and tracked at the border.
It’s a recipe for pervasive internet censorship and social control – which is exactly what Putin desires.
What effect would this have on Russian VPNs?
There’s another potentially dangerous side effect of Putin’s new online censorship drive: the demise of any Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
When Telegram was taken down, millions of Russians adapted by seeking out VPNs. That’s because VPNs offer a way around many forms of government censorship, and were (initially at least) a very effective solution to the Telegram ban.
For those who don’t know, VPNs encrypt the data you send via the web, and create secure “tunnels” between your device and international servers. When data is routed through these servers, your original IP address is exchanged for an overseas address.
In theory, the blend of encryption and IP address anonymization can make users invisible to state surveillance, making it very hard to censor their activities. And that’s what we see in countries like China or Saudi Arabia. The state genuinely struggles to lock onto VPN users.
In China, Beijing keeps a register of “approved” VPNs and prohibits others, but the state has never been able to restrict web users to approved providers. No country has managed to discipline all VPN providers.
Could Russia be the first to do so? That seems to be the plan.
Will Putin’s legislation succeed?
There seems to be very little doubt that Putin will get his way in the Duma (Russia’s parliament). As journalist Andrei Soldatov says, “The main thing – to give the government the option to isolate a particular region or the country in time of a crisis, is to be preserved, for sure.”
The question is whether this will work in practice. And there’s room for skepticism here.
Firstly, the bill requires significant technical work to make it possible. Moscow is placing the burden on domestic telecoms companies, who will need to create a server infrastructure wholly within Russian borders. At the moment, a lot of traffic is routed via overseas servers, and this would need to be repatriated somehow.
DNS is another problem area. For a purely domestic web to function, all accessible sites will need a Russian DNS identity as well as a conventional DNS address. These domestic addresses don’t yet exist.
Finally, Putin wants to create a central register of domestic websites – the so-called Roskomnadzor.
Telecoms companies will be expected to update the Roskomnadzor when their network architecture changes. But as this happens constantly, they aren’t sure how they will be able to handle registry updates and normal service provision.
None of this means that Putin and his government will back down. The cybersecurity and censorship agenda have become key parts of Moscow’s program, and the bill probably won’t be withdrawn. But implementation could be very tricky, and this is buoying activists somewhat.
How to work around internet censorship in Russia
Let’s assume that Putin has his way, and the state’s technicians manage to create a totally domestic version of the internet. This would certainly give state officials levers to repress almost any online content they don’t like. But all is not lost from a digital freedom perspective. Here’s why.
As we noted earlier, VPNs are commonly used in China and Russia to render state censorship null and void. If Beijing had the capability, it would have blocked elite VPNs completely. But the Chinese have not been able to do so. Why should Moscow fare any better?
In 2017, Russia tried to block VPNs and completely failed. Within a year, millions of Russians had downloaded VPNs to retain Telegram access, and the state had taken legal action against exactly zero VPNs. The legislation had utterly failed.
This means that should the Iron Curtain come into effect, users may well be able to bypass its restrictions with the right VPN. However, as in China, not all providers will work. If you’ve ever used a VPN in China, only to experience constant connection failures, you’ll appreciate this.
Instead, users will need to choose a reliable, privacy-focused supplier with a proven track record at defeating government censorship. If you need guidance, the best VPN for Russia should be present on this list.
What about worst case scenarios?
Before we finish, it’s important to remember that online freedom isn’t guaranteed. Putin’s government could succeed in creating a walled-off Russian internet, and if this happens, VPNs may be far less effective.
If the Russian web is completely severed from the rest of the world, VPNs won’t be able to route traffic through overseas servers. They may be able to deliver dramatically enhanced encryption and a degree of anonymization, but their overall potency would be lower.
Nevertheless, having a solid VPN as a fallback option makes sense. It’s unlikely that Russia will completely disconnect for long periods. In fact, users will be more likely to require a VPN to evade conventional surveillance and censorship. As dissent grows and the government seeks to respond, that kind of protection could be a matter of life and death.