Officials accused the VPN service to "disseminated false information about the decisions taken by the public authorities" allegedly via its Telegram channel, with the aim to form "a negative reputation of the public authorities of the Russian Federation"—Roskomsvoboda, the Russian digital rights group representing the firm, told TechRadar.
The legal case was then rejected, with the judge refusing to lift the blocking order. HideMy.name hasn't given up its fight against Russian censorship, however, and its lawyers are currently working on an appeal challenging the decision.
HideMy.name still blocked in Russia
"Of course, we weren't expecting a miracle. No one has ever been able to win in Roskomnadzor's home court in the last 12 years since the agency gained the right to block any web resources," Sarkis Darbinyan, Chief Legal Officer of Roskomsvoboda told me.
"The court process turned out to be as completely non-transparent as the whole procedure of out-of-register blocking through DPI," he added.
As we reported at the time the lawsuit was filed, the lawyers built the legal case exactly to challenge the lack of transparency in which the Kremlin's censorship regulator carried out the block order through technical tools employed for preventing threats—Technical Threat Prevention Units (TSPU)—under the Sovereign Internet Act without giving any explanations.
According to official documents presented in Court, officials described the use of the VPN software as a "threat to the safety of functioning of the Internet in Russia" after trying out the software and granting access to censored content. They then ordered that type of block accordingly. In its objection to the lawsuit, though, Roskomnadzor referred to the "threat to counteract (impede) the restriction of access" under the law—something that Roskomsvoboda found very strange.
Short for virtual private network, a VPN is security software that spoofs users' IP addresses to trick the ISP to think they are browsing from a different country entirely and grant them access to otherwise geo-restricted content. At the same time, the VPN tunnel encrypts internet connections to offer better anonymity and privacy online.
"That is, obviously, both the commission and the agency incorrectly classified the resource itself, because the service does not counteract the TSPU blocking in any way. However, the court did not help us deal with this," Darbinyan explained.
"Therefore, we cannot consider the court's decision legal. We are going to draw the attention of the Supreme Court to this."
The VPN provider's new foreign agent status could also bring new troubles to the company and, potentially, to those users who manage to keep accessing its service.
For example, according to Russian law, companies branded as foreign agents are required to report and post the correct label on their resources. However, not only HideMy.name doesn't have intentions to fulfill these requirements, but the Court didn't issue any specific demands on the administration of the VPN, either.
Darbinyan believes this order is then a way to ultimately scare off end users from engaging with HideMy.name products. Despite not being considered a crime for citizens to interact with these services, he explains that Russian authorities may consider payment to HideMy.name as support for the activities of a foreign agent under what he described as "one of the most segregated laws of the last few years."
He said: "I assume that the next step is for the Russian authorities to start recognizing such services as undesirable and extremist organizations, which would entail a ban on making any donations or payments to such organizations under penalty of criminal liability."
Smarter and tougher VPN censorship
The case of HideMy.name certainly shows how Roskomnadzor's censorship tactics have evolved over time.
Russia began cracking down on VPNs back in 2017, with a new legislation aimed to combat the circumvention of government-imposed content restrictions. Over the years, though, the fight intensified. That's especially due to a soar in Russia VPN usage in 2022, following the war in Ukraine and heavier internet restrictions around the board. After the adoption of a new internet sovereignty law, Darbinyan observed Russian centralized censorship becoming less and less transparent as well.
"Now, not only we at Roskomsvoboda, who have been keeping a register of banned information for more than 12 years, but also the telecom operators themselves often don't know what Roskomnadzor is doing and blocking in their networks," he told me.
Not only a lack of transparency, though, Darbinyan said that now censorship is way smarter and tougher than before. Instead of being limited to performing the blocking on the IP address level, Roskomnadzor (likewise other censorship officials across other countries, like China and Iran) seems to have learned to identify traffic by its signature in order to block VPN protocol.
From their side, providers have reacted to this new tactic by developing stealth protocols and VPN obfuscation technology to hide the fact users have the infamous circumvention tool on.
Even Roskomsvoboda built one of these solutions itself. Amnezia VPN is indeed a self-hosted free VPN which "has already shown its effectiveness on the Russian battlefield for freedom of information and privacy," said Darbinyan.
To make things worse, though, the Kremlin boosted up its VPN censorship crusade also with fresh new regulations which, among other things, forbid publishing information about ways to circumvent content blocking.
In response to the censorship Russians are adopting VPN really fast. The government is blocking at least 42 providers, but smaller services and decentralised protocols are still available pic.twitter.com/EabxUDHUPnMay 16, 2023
That's exactly where HideMy.name's legal battle gets really important as an opportunity to become a precedent through which more providers would be able to challenge Kremlin's blocking orders.
"VPN services are being delisted from search engines, information about them is removed from platforms and social networks, and Google and Yandex algorithms help pessimize their organic traffic. And not each VPN provider is ready to fight for the Russian market and Russian users," said Darbinyan.
After going through all the Court instances in Russia, the lawyers plan to bring the case up to the UN Human Rights Council to show the international community how far the censorship in Russia has gone.
Commenting on this point, Darbinyan told me: "This process will not be quick. But we still hope that after the fall of the repressive regime there will come a time of thawing, sanitization of law and revision of those dubious laws and decisions that led to mass violation of human rights in the country."
We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example: 1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service). 2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad. We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org