The big picture: Russia’s Roskomnadzor agency delivered a letter to ten popular VPN providers on Thursday, giving them two options: block websites blacklisted by the government, or join the blacklist and have services cut off. It’s a minefield for the VPN providers to walk through, with Russian citizens’ internet freedom on the line.
For years, the Russian government has slowly been restricting the internet access of its users, blocking everything from LGBT forums to LinkedIn. They do this by maintaining a database of restricted content, and by forcing search engines and ISPs to deny access to these websites and services through tough legislation. Historically, users have been able to bypass these laws with VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and other anonymizer services like Tor.
In July 2017, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill granting Roskomnadzor the ability to add VPN providers that didn’t comply with the blacklist database, to the blacklist database. It’s a more serious threat than it sounds – because all Russian ISPs comply with the database, attempts to access VPN servers would be blocked. The threat prompted many VPN providers to leave the country and others to comply, but this is the first time Roskomnadzor is taking action.
Of the ten VPN providers targeted; NordVPN, ExpressVPN, TorGuard, IPVanish, VPN Unlimited, VyprVPN, HideMyA**, Hola VPN, OpenVPN and Kaspersky Secure Connection (the only Russian-owned VPN on the list); two have already decided on their course of action.
TorGuard has already (voluntarily) wiped all their servers in the country, and left Russia. VyprVPN has taken the opposite stance and will not comply with Roskomnadzor but will continue providing service, or at least it will try to.
“Our core mission is to keep the internet open and free, and therefore, we will continue to provide uncensored access to the internet in Russia and around the world. We will not cooperate with the Russian government in their efforts to censor VPN services.” VyprVPN operator Golden Frog stated in a blog post. They’re safe from physical or legal action, as they don’t have any servers or offices in Russia, but it’s unclear if they can circumvent ISPs blocking their IP addresses.
Hopefully VPN providers can get around the ban somehow; we’ll have to wait and see. But with the government even considering temporarily disconnecting Russia from the global internet entirely, the future looks bleak.