VPN providers warned in Russia

VPN providers warned in Russia

Russia has warned VPN providers that do not adhere to domestic censorship laws that they may face being banned. This is in-line with recent plans to create a ‘Sovereign Internet’. These laws include prohibiting access to sites on the country’s national block-list. In turn, the laws infringe on users’ privacy and internet freedoms.

The Threat

On Thursday 28th March, the Roskomnadzor issued a letter to 10 Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers. The Roskomnadzor is Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media. The letter requested the providers to comply with Russian censorship laws or risk being blocked. These providers include OpenVPN, ExpressVPN and Torguard. They were all given a month to respond.

Many Russians rely on VPNs to protect their network connection and grant access to blocked or restricted content. They do this by encrypting a user’s internet connection via a remote server. This essentially makes any data viewed by a third-party unintelligible and prevents ISPs, authorities or anyone else spying on a network from being able to monitor a users activity. As they operate using a multitude of remote servers, they also enable users to access geo-restricted and blocked content.

Roskomnadzor’s warning negatively impacts VPN providers, as well as Russians who seek to protect their privacy and online freedoms.

If these companies decide to comply with Russia’s request, they will cease to grant their users these rights. Instead, they will carry out restrictions on content blocked by Russian authorities. This includes negative press regarding prominent Russian figures or even anti-Putin graffiti.

The response

The vast majority of VPN providers issued with the warning have stuck by their commitments to users digital rights and refused to comply.

So far, VPNUnlimited, VyprVPN and OpenVPN have all stated that they will not adhere to the demands of the Roskomnadzor. ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish and Torguard have followed suit, stating they will also be shutting down all of their Russian servers.

Kaspersky has released no public response but, as the only Russian-based VPN, it is likely they will abide by the Roskomnadzor’s request. Agreeing to abide by domestic censorship laws would drastically undermine their privacy credentials and lead to a loss of trust amongst customers.

While running the risk of being banned, providers will likely “rely on their ability to outsmart the Russian censors”. This is highly suspected given that similar methods are already used to circumvent censorship in China.

Digital freedoms at risk

The threat to ban non-compliant VPN providers in Russia raises concerns over the future of the country’s internet access.

If the Roskomnadzor begins clamping down on these services and their users, Russian’s will have no choice but to use a VPN illegally and risk a hefty fine. On the other hand, going without a VPN resigns users to a limited and highly censored browsing experience.

Given the continued popularity of VPNs in countries like China, who have banned them completely, it is highly likely that many Russian’s will risk using VPNs illegally. This is especially true for those who rely on encrypted networks to heighten their own personal security and access blocked content, such as journalists.

However, a ban will certainly be enough to put off more anxious internet users who see risking punishment from the Roskomnadzor as outweighing the pros of accessing unrestricted content.

Wider concerns

The Roskomnadzor’s warning is viewed as part-and-parcel of Russia’s new drive to create a ‘Sovereign Internet’. This has culminated in a bill due to pass into law on 1st November.

The bill, formally known as the Digital Economy National Program, would route all data away from international servers to domestic ones. This would effectively allow Russia’s internet to operate in isolation if threatened by attacks or shut-downs from foreign servers.

For this reason, Russian authorities have claimed the bill is a necessary defence from international threats such as current American cybersecurity policies. However, the bill has been criticised for its similarities to China’s ‘Great Firewall’. This is because the technology required would enable mass government surveillance and censorship.

Such concerns are being dismissed by those in support of the bill who claim it is necessary to make Russian cyberspace more secure and reliable. The Head of the Roskomnadzor Aleksandr Zharov stated that the bill “prevents the spread of banned information.”

However, the threat to VPN providers, the tightening of internet access and the increased site-blocking already underway suggests otherwise. Earlier this month, the Roskomnadzor blocked over 1,000 sites for online references to persons of interest. The references concerned the CEO of VTB Bank, Andrey Kostin, and the news reporter Nailya Asker-Zade. The blocking was supposedly done ‘for the protection of business reputation’. This highlights Russia’s increased ability to restrict information from the public.

Seen alongside these other developments within Russian cyberspace, the Roskomnadzor’s threat to block VPN providers could be viewed as another attempt to restrict the digital privacy of the country’s citizens.


Russia’s move towards a ‘Sovereign Internet’ has led to increased site-blocking and internet restrictions within the country. The warning issued to VPN providers can be viewed alongside the proposed new bill and recent site-blocks as yet another way Russian authorities are attempting to gain control over domestic internet usage – claimed as securing Russia against cyber attacks but infringing on users digital rights in the process. Users will have to hope that VPN providers are able to continue their services in Russia, despite the inevitable ban they will face.

However, it is worth noting that the Roskomnadzor is distinctly behind China in its ability to successfully track down and penalize internet services. Given that VPN providers are still able to operate within China, it seems reasonable to assume they will find a way around the ban in Russia.

As Russia’s surveillance and censorship increases, it is vital tools like VPNs are available to help citizens retain their privacy, security and ability to browse freely online. The ability to access unrestricted information is particularly necessary to maintain democracy in a country becoming more and more autocratic.

If Russia decides to block these VPN providers and launch its own Sovereign Internet, those users unwilling to defy the Roskomnadzor will see their content restricted to only those sites approved by Putin. This will help suppress dissent and the circulation of ideas that contest his leadership. It is therefore vital that VPNs continue to operate in Russia so that those who wish to use their services can do so, even at the risk of being punished by the authorities.

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