The Russians need a VPN. The Kremlin hates them

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From the very beginning war in Ukraine On February 24, Russian authorities attempted to turn their country’s internet into an island by severing its ties to the global internet. Nearly 400 news websites, 138 financial websites, 93 anti-war websites and three social media platforms were blocked. according to Top10VPN.com.

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As the number of blocked sites has grown, a huge number of Russians have turned to VPN companies that connect users of one country’s censored internet to a server in another country where there are less restrictions as bridges from Moscow’s shrinking internet. After Russia invaded Ukraine, VPN companies say the number of Russian users has skyrocketed. VPN company Windscribe told WIRED that nearly a million people from Russia have signed up for the service since the start of the war, 20 times the usual figure. Another provider called Psiphon said its number of daily active users in Russia jumped to more than 1.1 million immediately after the Instagram block and then stalled at 650,000.

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But VPN companies have not escaped Russian censorship. “[The internet regulator] Roskomnadzor is very nervous about the explosive growth of the VPN market,” says Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a Russian digital rights group. Between March 13 and 25, Roskomnadzor submitted more than 12,800 requests to Google to remove URLs in accordance with the 2017 VPN law. according to the Lumen database, an archive that documents legal requests to remove online content. There are no URLs listed in the database, and Google did not respond to WIRED’s request for comments.

Life gets complicated for VPN companies that cater to Russian users. About 20 VPN services have already been blocked in the country, and the authorities plan to block even more. according politician Alexander Khinshtein, chairman of the Russian Committee on Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications in the Duma, the main legislative body of the country. “VPNs are blocked daily. This is not an easy task, but it is solvable,” he said. March 15th live on the social network VKontakte.

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“In the past two weeks or so, there have been widespread disruptions to VPN protocols in general,” says Michael Hull, co-founder of Psiphon, adding that his company has always found a way to keep going. “Standard protocols [technology which VPN companies use to bridge their users to the open internet] such as OpenVPN and other more or less trivial VPN protocols have been completely blocked.” OpenVPN CEO Francis Dinha says he hasn’t seen any indication that the company’s protocol is being blocked, but adds that “at this point we have no way of confirming if this is true.”

Not only are VPN companies struggling with increased government scrutiny, but the sanctions mean Russian users are struggling to pay for their services. Russians “now have no way to pay for any VPN service because they can’t pay with Visa or Mastercardthey cannot use Google gamesthey cannot use Apple Pay”, says Yegor Sak, founder of Windscribe, referring to all the companies that have taken their financial services out of the country in the past few weeks. The sanctions also mean Windscribe can’t find a way to pay its Russian hosting companies, Sack adds.

But the war in Ukraine has also reignited a debate in the VPN industry about whether these companies offer a safe way to avoid Russian internet censorship. “The most popular VPNs in Russia are free services,” says Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com. “These VPN services are run by very non-transparent organizations. It is very difficult for the average consumer to know anything about the companies they will trust with their data, and some of these companies go to great lengths to keep it that way.”

The Finnish company F-Secure told the German Der Spiegel The newspaper said it stopped offering its Freedome VPN product in Russia in 2017 to avoid creating a false sense of security for users who wanted to avoid government scrutiny. “We have made a very conscious decision not to sell our VPN in Russia,” Antero Norquio, F-Secure vice president of consumer security, told WIRED. “The Russian government will not necessarily let you provide a proper VPN that is truly secure from a user perspective. For example, authorities may require access to a VPN service that would subject consumers to government oversight or block access to state-mandated web services.”

F-Secure states that it only works in countries where local laws are followed. But this law-abiding position is not shared by all of its competitors. Instead, VPN companies still operating in the country say they are operating while quietly ignoring the rules.

Russia has been struggling with the growing popularity of VPNs for years. In November 2017, the so-called VPN law, which tried to get companies to block restricted websites. VPNs are required to prevent users from accessing any URLs listed by Roskomnadzor. Unified register of blocked sites, which now includes Facebook and the BBC, according to Harold Lee, vice president of ExpressVPN, who says his company is not up to par. F-Secure was one of the companies that freaked out by suspending sales of its VPN products a month before the law went into effect.

For the foreign companies that didn’t quit, the VPN law was an incentive. They became the anti-regime alternative because they could afford to ignore the rules; they had no local staff to face the consequences. “None of the most famous services are currently Russian,” says Migliano. Instead, the market now features international companies based in countries such as the Seychelles and the British Virgin Islands, which are happy to circumvent the country’s laws in order to keep access for Russian users. “Some Russian companies that tried to comply with the law ended up closing down,” says Klimarev of the Internet Defense Society. “No one was buying these services.” Now the group advises Russian users Only buy VPN services from foreign companies.

When authorities block foreign VPNs that refuse to comply, these companies find workarounds.

In September 2021, the Russian internet watchdog Roskomnadzor targeted top six VPN companies and restricted them for violating Russian law. The regulator said that these companies create “an environment for illegal activities, including those related to the distribution of drugs and child pornography, extremism and incitement to suicide.” ExpressVPN, which was one of the companies on the list, says it was targeted because it refused to block access to news sites, secure email services, and political opposition content. “At that time, we publicly stated that we would not do this. This is contrary to the reason we provide a VPN service,” says Singapore-based ExpressVPN’s Lee. “As we understand [the ban] was a continuation of that.

Li says that right after the company was blocked, there were attempts to block ExpressVPN traffic. But the company managed to get around this by masking its VPN traffic to look like normal traffic so that authorities couldn’t detect it. “We prefer not to talk about it in great detail, but basically it’s just a change in our data packets look,” says Lee, although he is preparing for a more complex block than copying the methods used in other countries where ExpressVPN already operates.

“Blocking IPs and domains or restricting people from downloading apps is something we could see with dial-up, as we have seen in many other countries,” Li adds. “There is cause for concern.


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