Russia has threatened to clampdown on VPN services, which users in that country are using to bypass tough Internet restrictions.

Earlier this month thousands of protesters took to the street of Moscow to protest forthcoming legislation designed to further tighten government controls of the Internet in Russia.

That legislation needs to go the Russian parliament before President Vladimir Putin officially rubber stamps it. It essentially wants to route Russian web traffic and data through points controlled by the Russian government.

VPN clampdown

But it should be remembered that Russia already has passed tough Internet laws that require search engines to delete some results.

Those laws also force messaging services to share encryption keys with Russian security services, and social networks are also required to store users’ personal data on servers located within Russian jurisdiction.

And these clampdowns are having an effect. Russia for example has already banned the use of the popular messaging app Telegram.

That decision was taken by Russian authorities after the app refused to give Russian state security services access to its users’ secret messages by handing over encryption keys used to scramble the messages.

In response Russians have turned to popular VPN (virtual private network) services so they can carry on using Telegram and accessing other banned websites.

But now Russia’s regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) is turning its attention to these VPNs as well.

RKN has ordered the owners of 10 VPN services to join a state IT system that contains a registry of banned websites.

The idea is that if the VPN services link to the system, their users would not be able to reach websites which had been blocked, or be able to use the banned Telegram messenger service, Reuters reported.

Notifications have reportedly been sent to NordVPN, Hide My Ass!, Hola VPN, Openvpn, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, TorGuard, IPVanish, Kaspersky Secure Connection and VPN Unlimited.

RKN has given them a month to reply.

“In the cases of non-compliance with the obligations stipulated by the law, Roskomnadzor may decide to restrict access to a VPN service,” the watchdog was quoted as saying in a statement.

Online censorship

Russia is not the only regime to clampdown on access to VPN services.

China for example has one of the harshest censorship regimes in the world, and it routinely blocks access to VPN services.

In 2017 it forced Apple to remove hundreds of VPN apps from its China App Store, including ExpressVPN, VyprVPN and StarVPN.

And Russia’s tactic to follow China’s lead was noticed by some security experts.

“Russia is clearly following in the footsteps of China in clamping down on VPN services after an extended period in which the ban was in name only,” said Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com.

“It’s highly unlikely that the VPN providers will comply with Russian demands,” said Migliano. “To agree to share user information with Russian security services would seriously undermine their privacy credentials and cause them to shed customers across the world, who would rightly feel betrayed.”

“Quite aside from any moral objections to sharing user data with Moscow, it would require a technical overhaul from those providers that have invested in developing VPN networks with in-built protections from this kind of misuse of their customers’ data,” he added.

“A more likely outcome is that while some VPN providers may shut down their Russian servers, others will risk the ban and rely on their ability to outsmart the Russian censors and continue to operate,” said Migliano. “They will certainly be encouraged by Roscomnadzor’s spotty record in this regard, where it lags far behind the Chinese efforts that have inspired this crackdown.

“What’s also in the VPN providers’ favour is that even behind China’s Great Firewall, a number of the named services continue to operate in defiance of the ban,” said Migliano.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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