Russia isn’t a place friendly to human rights. The Putin government censors the opposition, keeps journalists from doing their job and blocks its population from accessing certain websites. Add the illegal occupation of Crimea and the brush war being fought in eastern Ukraine and you have all the hallmarks of a despotic regime.
That said, the Russian government has taken the unusual step of trying to co-opt third parties with helping keeping its population in the dark. In late March 2019, the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications — which usually goes by its acronym Roskomnadzor — sent emails to several leading VPN providers and ordered them to block certain websites for Russian users.
We reached out to the VPNs approached by Roskomnadzor and can report that none are willing to cooperate with the Russian authorities, even if that means they may face punitive action. Before we get to their reactions, though, let’s talk about VPNs and the situation in Russia.
Censorship in Russia
As you can read in our VPN guide, virtual private networks are a great way to stay anonymous online. Instead of connecting to the internet through a server that the government and internet service providers can watch, you connect through a private server, allowing you to do whatever you want online without fear of being tracked (read our VPN security article for the details).
That’s great for torrenting, watching porn or getting past the geoblocks streaming sites have put up, but the tangible way VPNs make the world better is by letting people in countries that censor the internet access the web and say what they want without fear of reprisal, which, in those places, usually comes in the form of a knock at the door and a blindfolded trip to nowhere.
Countries that censor the internet aren’t going to let such an air hole exist if they can help it. China, for example, keeps its Great Firewall big and strong by banning VPNs and punishing people who are caught using one.
Russia hasn’t banned VPNs so far, despite having a massive list of websites that the government prefers citizens not visit. If you follow the link above, you can see that a lot of the blocked websites are porn and gambling, but there are plenty of news outlets, too. It isn’t just about protecting citizens from bad habits, but also from the free flow of information.
We talk more about how the censorship machine works in the Motherland in our best VPN for Russia piece, but suffice it to say it isn’t pretty.
We’ve also received a few reports that people in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been stopped by police to check their phones for VPN software, but they haven’t been corroborated at time of writing. If you know more about that, reach out to this writer via our about page.
The Russian VPN Ban
Rather than an outright ban, Roskomnadzor instead approached several VPN providers to order them to block the same websites that Russia does. We figure that’s because banning VPNs is a lot trickier than you’d think. Plenty of people we’ve talked to can use their VPNs just fine in China, for instance (check out our best VPN for China piece for more on that).
That said, the problem with ordering people to do things when you don’t have any power over them is that they can refuse. The worst Roskomnadzor can do is add VPN websites to the existing list of banned websites, which can be subverted by using a VPN that’s not on the list.
That, and the whole “not wanting to be an accomplice to the stifling of free speech” thing, led the VPNs we contacted to refuse to comply with the order. As Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN (the best VPN out there, in our estimation), says in an email exchange with Cloudwards.net:
“As a matter of principle, ExpressVPN will never cooperate with efforts to censor the internet by any country. Protecting privacy and freedom of expression online is part of our core mission, and we will continue to fight to keep users connected to the free and open internet, no matter where they are located.
“As we’ve experienced in other countries with a high level of censorship, enforcement is a game of cat-and-mouse. We expect that Russian internet users will still be able to find means of accessing the sites and services they want, albeit perhaps with some additional effort.”
The CEO of OpenVPN, Francis Dinha, made a similar statement in a blog post a few days after the Roskomnadzor email was received, saying that his company “cannot in good conscience support censorship.”
Another one of our favorite VPNs, NordVPN, went one step further and shut down its servers in Russia. In a blog post, the company said “connecting to NordVPN servers in Russia may no longer be safe. To prevent any service disruptions or malfunctions, we will be shredding all of our Russian servers and removing them from our service.”
Two more services we were able to reach also refused to comply, and were also not particularly worried because they don’t have servers in Russia. IPVanish closed its servers there in 2016 after pressure was applied, and VPN Unlimited also defiantly blew a raspberry toward Moscow.
We’re sure Russians will continue to be able to see and read what they want on the internet. For now, at least. That said, it’s sad that they’ll need to use the services of private companies to do so.
Though the last most likely hasn’t been said about Russia blocking websites, VPN providers seem resolute in their decision not to follow orders from Roskomnadzor in any shape or form. We hope that remains so in the years to come, and we aim to keep you updated.
What do you think of the Russian government’s actions? What kind of sanctions do you think the above VPN services can expect? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thank you for reading.