When it comes to tightening up cyber security laws, restrictions and regulations, no country has been more active than Russia over the course of the last two years. In their latest proposal, Russia’s legislature appears to be targeting VPN service providers and other privacy based companies for allowing customers to visit banned websites or circumvent national laws.
Russia isn’t going to ban VPN’s or Proxies outright, they are simply going going to present companies with an ultimatum. These companies can either restrict access to all the same websites the Government of Russia bans, or face being banned from the country themselves if they do not.
As reported by Softpedia News on April 20th 2017, Russia’s “government is working on a new bill to require VPNs and anonymizing services to stop providing access to blocked domains or risk getting blocked themselves.” Going on to explain that “In order for these VPN or proxy providers to be allowed to work in Russia, they’d have to prevent access to all domains present on the banned resources list. This would ensure they avoid legal issues.”
Sergey Grebennikov, Director of the Regional Public Center of Internet Technologies inside Russia, stresses that these laws are not meant to be ‘anti-privacy’ and acknowledges the right of Russian citizens to utilize VPN services for cybersecurity.
In statements made available to Torrents Freak earlier this week, Grebennikov says that “we are against the spread of illegal content, but the law does not violate the rights and freedoms of citizens to access information.” Going on to explain that “there is a ‘gray zone’ used to carry out illegal activities and the distribution of illegal content using a CGI proxies, but it does not mean that legitimate users have to suffer. It is also important to note that the laws do not violate the rights of users who choose the safe use of the Internet, for example, by using a VPN connection.”
As for why Russia is currently facing this problem, it is because few countries do more to restrict internet access than Russia does. Compared the United States, the internet of Russia is extremely closed off to the outside world. Not only are many foreign countries/vendors blocked from advertising inside Russia, such as American news corporations, but Russia also blocks access to some of the Internet’s most popular websites.
Russia bans websites like Linkdin, which was recently sold for 26 Billion dollars and hosts nearly 500 million users world-wide: http://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-clears-26b-microsoft-linkedin-deal-1481040941
Russia has also repeatedly threatened to restrict access to other Social Media venues, such Facebook and Twitter in the past: http://www.cnbc.com/2015/05/22/russia-threatens-block-on-google-twitter-facebook.html
Russia has previously banned Bitcoin, making it a felony to posses: http://news.softpedia.com/news/bitcoin-transactions-in-russia-could-carry-a-four-years-prison-sentence-501670.shtml
If you are a total n00b and all of this is above your head, VPN’s and Proxies work by allowing a person or internet user to connect to what is known as a “proxy server,” usually hosted in a country outside of their own. As this server is hosted in a different country and is therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Russian Government, the bans/blocks imposed by the Russian Government do not apply and theoretically allow whomever is using it to freely browse the internet and access websites they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
It might sound complicated, but proxy services and VPN’s are incredibly easy to find and access. For this reason, it almost feels as though Russia’s attempt to block VPN’s or Proxies is nothing more than a “fools errand.” I mean, you can literally type in “proxy list” on Google and find thousands of proxies to connect through for free. Russia may be able to ban the biggest and most prominent companies/services, but it would be literally impossible to ban them all.
This is exactly why Russia’s new law also proposes to fine search engines, such as Google, for offering search results which may lead Russian citizens to banned material or to services which could allow Russian citizens to circumvent national laws – such as proxies. If the new law goes through, search engines could be fined as much as $12,400 per click, each time a user accesses a banned website or service through that engines search returns.
The only problem with this is that foreign companies do not have to abide by the laws of outside countries. For example, in 2015 Turkey attempted to sue Twitter for sponsoring terrorism, for the companies refusal not to do more to prevent terrorists from joining their network. It just so happens that Twitter was found guilty in Turkish courts and was subsequently fined. However, considering that Twitter is an American company, they simply ignored the Turkish Government and refused to pay. To this day Twitter has never payed Turkey anything. To the same token, I seriously doubt Google would ever pay the Russian Government no matter how much money the country fined them.
Despite obvious flaws, Russia would not the first country to implement such measures. In January 2017 China made international headlines when the country announced it would implement a ban on all proxies and VPN’s which allowed their citizens to bypass “The Great Firewall of China.” Countries such as the United Arab Emirates also ban VPN ownership outright and while you might not be arrested for using one the United States, VPN ownership does technically qualify you for a criminal investigation at the hands of the FBI.