Russia inches closer to Chinese-style great firewall

Digital rights advocates warn that Russian authorities are advancing rapidly in their efforts to achieve total control of the internet, as attempts to outlaw VPN services gain traction.

Russia’s censorship body Roskomnadzor has been asked to decide whether VPN services seen as violating the country’s laws should be banned from RuStore, the country’s official Android store.

The request came from Russian Senator Artem Sheikin, who is also deputy chair of the panel supervising digital economy in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, and advocates for a Chinese-style internet model in Russia.

“The condition for the operation of VPN services in our country is their compliance with the requirements of the Russian legislation. In particular, the law stipulates that VPN applications cannot assist users in providing access to sites blocked in Russia,” Sheikin said in comments to RIA Novosti, a state-owned news agency.

Sheikin asked Roskomnadzor to check more than 100 VPN services available on government-mandated RuStore. “I believe that if VPN services do not comply with Russian law, they should be immediately blocked and removed from RuStore,” Sheikin said.

He previously argued for Russia to build its own equivalent of China’s great firewall to control internet traffic and block undesirable content.

Worse to come

Russia has banned VPN services in the past but the crackdown has intensified this year and will get worse, according to Sarkis Darbinyan, chief legal officer at Roskomsvoboda, a Russian digital rights organization.

“So far they are cleaning them out manually, but in the near future there will be a direct ban with responsibility for assistance in the distribution and realization of VPN services or other information that helps to bypass blocking,” he told Cybernews.

RuStore aids Russian authorities in reinforcing internet control. Developed by VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, it replaced app stores run by Apple and Google that closed shop in Russia following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Following the invasion, it joined the list of Russian apps that must come pre-installed on all smartphones imported to the country, as demanded by a law introduced by the government in 2021.

“When the law on mandatory pre-installation of Russian apps was passed, it was obvious to us that it would only increase censorship. The Russian authorities want to gain control over the entire information space, which means that they need to control not only websites, but also, of course, the applications that users consume,” Darbinyan said.

He added: “And I have to say, they are doing a pretty good job of it.”

Cracks in firewall

Examples from China show that even in a highly censored and controlled internet environment cracks can appear, especially when the demand for banned information soars.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens found inventive ways to share information about protests against their government’s draconian COVID-19 restrictions last year.

These included posting on dating apps or comment sections of otherwise uncontroversial topics, often using coded language to bypass algorithms.

The use of VPNs helped share information about the situation in China both at home and abroad. VPNs are banned in China apart from licensed business use of some domestic services, but many Chinese still find ways to use illegal ones.

Data shows that downloads of Twitter (now X), where much of the information about protests were shared, soared in China last year despite the fact that the app is banned in the country.

Activists are also working on new methods to break through internet restrictions. According to Roskomsvoboda, the Russian rights group, its own tool Amnezia VPN, which uses obfuscation protocol, was tested in Turkmenistan and is “ready to work both in China and Russia under conditions of strict censorship.”

If the sheer number of resources required to maintain the great firewall poses challenges to China, it could prove an even greater obstacle to Russia, where even some high-ranking legislators have publicly questioned the logic behind proposals to block VPNs.

"My position on VPNs remains unchanged: I believe that they cannot be banned, nor can anyone be held accountable for using these services," Russian MP Alexander Khinshtein, head of the information policy committee at the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, said in a post on Telegram.

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