Russia VPN: Kremlin claims no blocking plans "yet," but usage may be still at risk

Icon of blocked VPN on a black smartphone screen on a man hands. Blocking VPN services concept
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Security software providers and citizens breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday, February 6, 2024, when the Kremlin announced no further plans "yet" to block VPNs in Russia

Russian authorities have long been battling against the use of these circumventing tools as they allow citizens to bypass strict government-imposed online restrictions. However, these efforts haven't always achieved the desired results—for instance, VPN downloads in Russia have skyrocketed since the conflict in Ukraine began.

The announcement comes after months of speculation over the new measures expected to target software providing Russians access to banned content. However, experts still argue that VPN usage might be at risk.

Russia VPN censorship

According to Stanislav Shakirov, CTO of the Russian digital rights group Roskomsvoboda, the new announcement isn't really about blocking VPN service, per se, as some of the VPNs, he said, have been blocked for a very long time.

"From March 1, 2024, information about ways to circumvent blocking, about tools, popularization of VPNs, etc. is going to be blocked," he told me.

This doesn't come as a total surprise, either.

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Shape of Russia filled with Russian flag-colored internet codes on a black hacking background

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Russian Senator Artem Sheikin, the deputy chairman of the Council for the Development of the Digital Economy, first disclosed the plan for yet another VPN censorship crusade in October last year. Then, the head of the government's initiative Safe Internet League, Yekaterina Mizulina, confirmed that the plan was "most likely" to happen the day before the Kremlin issued the denial—the Moscow Times reported

Short for virtual private network, a VPN is security software that encrypts internet connections to offer better anonymity and privacy online. It also spoofs your IP address to trick the sites you visit into thinking you're browsing from a different country entirely and grants access to geo-restricted content. The latter ability is exactly why many countries worldwide are boosting their VPN censorship tactics.

Last year in April, the Kremlin launched a new disinformation campaign to dissuade citizens from using these tools. This was followed by fresh new regulations which, among other things, forbid publishing information about ways to circumvent content blocking. That's exactly what Shakirov believes the new rules against VPNs are all about.

He said: "I assume that in accordance with the law on information removal, the authorities will start blocking sites that contain information related to VPN. There will be warnings given to all sites that have relevant articles, reviews, advertisements."

The founder of one of these precious resources himself—Privacy Accelerator—Shakirov prospects that any website and online service refusing to remove such information will be blocked. 

"We expect that this may affect not only VPN providers, but also media and public organizations, including Roskomsvoboda," he added. "It will also affect aggregator websites that are used by VPN-providers to receive traffic."

What's certain is that, while the infamous country's telecom regulator Roskomnadzor has been feeding its centralized internet blacklist since 2012 with online content deemed illegal, citizens have been turning en masse to secure VPN solutions—especially following the boost in censorship after the invasion in Ukraine began.

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Many of the censored URLs and domain names are actually VPN official websites which rejected the government's new requirements

This meant that providers had to find alternative ways to reach customers. They also invested in boosting their infrastructure with obfuscation technology and similar censorship-resistant features to evade the Kremlin's crackdown. All these efforts may be rendered obsolete very soon.

Shakirov expects to see all the information around security software moving away from the web to Telegram, passing by word of mouth between citizens instead.

He said: "This situation will affect the way people learn about VPN and buy it. If this information is currently publicly available, in the future it is going to be a little bit more difficult to get such type of information."

Disclaimer

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.

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

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 chiara.castro@futurenet.com