New restrictions for VPNs and anonymisers in Russia

4 minute read
17 July 2018

This article was originally published in IAM Weekly, and has been republished with permission.

In recent years, thousands of websites, including torrent websites and social media platforms, have been blocked in Russia (for further details please see ‘“Roskomnadzor is informing”: state protocols for website blocking’). The uniform register of prohibited websites maintained by Roskomnadzor is being updated daily.

However, the existing system for blocking illegal content has proven to be inefficient. Scores of easily downloadable virtual private networks (VPNs), proxies and other technologies that enable users to access blocked content are effectively undermining Russia’s entire website-blocking strategy.

On July 29 2017 the Law on Amendments to the Law on Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information (Federal Law 276 FZ) was adopted. The new law provides for the regulation of VPNs and other technologies (known as ‘anonymisers’) that allow users to surf the Internet anonymously. The new legal framework comes into force on November 1 2017. However, questions remain over how it will operate in practice.

The new law defines an ‘anonymiser’ as an information and telecoms network, information resource (website or web page on the Internet, information system or computer software) which enables access to information resources on information and telecoms networks that are prohibited in Russia. The definition is broad and it is not clear whether it would extend to browser extensions such as VPNs using the Opera web browser.

The new law does not prohibit the use of anonymisers per se. Rather, it provides for the regulation and recordal of anonymisers and search engines by Roskomnadzor.

Based on information provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Federal Security Service, Roskomnadzor will identify the hosting providers of anonymisers and send a notification requesting them to provide contact information for recordal purposes.

The recordal system prescribes the creation of a federal state information system of information resources, information and telecoms networks, access to which is restricted. Presumably, the recordal system will include a unified list of all blocked websites in Russia and give registered anonymisers and search engines access to that list.

Under the new law, all anonymisers will be required to restrict access to the websites which are prohibited in Russia, while search engines will be obliged to withhold information about the domain name of the infringing website and its references. Failure to limit access to blocked websites by an anonymiser will entitle Roskomnadzor to block the anonymiser.

Further, telecoms operators will be obliged to block access to such anonymisers; it is not clear whether telecoms operators would have the technical ability to do so. Russian telecoms operators do not appear to have specialised deep packet inspection equipment, which distinguishes VPN traffic from standard hypertext transfer protocol secure traffic, as used in the Great Firewall of China.

While the new law will make it considerably more difficult for internet users to access blocked websites, it is unlikely that blocking anonymisers will successfully remove all illegal online content.

The new law does not enable the instant blocking of mirror anonymisers that commonly follow the blocking of a restricted website. New techniques for bypassing these restrictions will likely develop over time.

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