Free Internet and a Child’s Tear

Why Russia decided to fight VPN and TOR

Be it a full data collection and recording of user activity on the network or its long-term storage, or the block of certain websites without a court decision – Russian government is doing everything it can in terms to ensure the “security” of its citizens in regards to undesirable content. As it turns out, even that is not enough. On July 30, 2017 Vladimir Putin signed a new law designed to defeat Internet-anonymizers, frequently used in Russia to bypass censorship. And, although the providers have not yet managed to ‘digest’ the odious bill (also known as “Yarovaya law”), they will now be imputed with new functions that block VPN-services with which the authorities have failed to come to an agreement.

The work on the establishment of a “safe” communicational space, free from everything that may discompose Russian citizens, has been carried out for years now. The story began with SORM – “System for Operative Investigative Activities”. According to Ksenia Ermoshina, a cyber-activist and employee of The Centre for Direct Scientific Communication of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the first generation of this system was primarily a wiretapping program, designed to intercept phone calls since 1996. However, in 2000 the new SORM-2 was launched to control the activity of Internet users, intercept the metadata of each connection (IP addresses, ports, URL of visited pages, mailbox addresses, connection time, volume of traffic, etc.) and, if necessary, remotely transfer this information from the provider’s equipment to the district office of the FSS.

In 2014, the new era of SORM began, when providers were ordered to install SORM-3 at their own expense. An updated system can intercept not only metadata, but also the content of traffic (as well as of phone calls, photos, videos) of all users who connect to the network. Furthermore, the provider is forced to store all the intercepted traffic. “Where previously only targeted traffic of some members of opposition like Navalny or Udaltsov was stored, now the traffic of all Russian citizens is kept. And this is terabytes of data. It`s extremely expensive”, considers Ksenia Ermoshina.

Many  providers simply could not afford to buy such equipment, leading to a rise in corruption and a disruption of law implementation.

Since the adoption of the so-called “Yarovaya Law” in July 2016, these costs have become completely unaffordable for providers. The law increased the period of storage of the traffic intercepted by SORM to 6 months and did it in the same way as before – at the operator’s expense. The rights for equipment manufacturing were given to several private companies, which immediately began to extract monopoly rents from bound-by-law providers. Many  simply could not afford to buy such equipment, leading to a rise in corruption and a disruption of law implementation.

The “Yarovaya Laws” have also caused other unexpected effects: the drop of service quality and the rise of Internet costs. Providers, unable to store such big amounts of data, started avoiding unlimited tariffs and limited the volume of user’s traffic. When I was 12 years old, I would buy a card and go online using a modem. These were the cards providing 200 or 500 MB. We turn back to that again,” — Ksenia Ermoshina comments.

But the implementation of the “Mass Surveillance” Act does not conflict with the adoption of another one – the “Mass Censorship” Act. For example, according to the first law, the FSS forces the provider to extract metadata and user traffic continuously, but according to second, they have to block the websites where you can read about this very procedure.

It is not the first time that Russian officials have started to red-pencil the Internet. Perhaps, the reason for such a serious toughening of legislation was the protests at Bolotnaya Square in 2011-2012, organized largely through social networks and websites dedicated to the opposition. “And although at that point in time the procedure of website banning by court decision already existed, it still took too much time. To block the website it was necessary to go through a number of stages. According to the “blacklists” Act of 2012 the time span to do this was only 1-2 days,” says Ksenia Ermoshina. “Moreover, the providers don’t even have the necessary equipment to block the websites. The Internet is not a water pipe. It is decentralised. Authorities cannot just “turn off the tap”. Therefore, another act was required to oblige providers to install equipment other than SORM. And currently, Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) simply sends the lists of websites that have to be blocked to providers”.

According to the estimates of the Rublacklist website, for the five years of the act, about 275,000 sources have already been blocked, mainly for drug advertising, services for Internet casinos, child pornography and suicidal content. Apart from those websites, political sites remain the largest group blocked “by the court’s decision”. Significantly, one of the first sources that fell under the ban was the website of Navalny, together with a large part of websites with the Ukrainian domain ua.

“First to fall under the ban were peadophilia, propaganda for suicide, and all the things that ‘endanger our children’’, explains Ksenia Yermoshina. “Children are the first point for many prohibitions to begin with. The same applies to propaganda of LGBT. Therefore, torrents fall under this category with the greatest ease: after all, movies with homosexuals, suicides, drugs are in free access there. Children’s tears provide a welcome excuse for adopting any law.”

The ban of the anonymizers can be considered as a counterstroke by the authorities in the face of the failure of the previous policy.

The adoption of the law gave rise to a race in which developers and website owners set up “mirror sites” with slightly changed names and redirection. Roskomnadzor blocked them operatively, so the developers responded with even more “mirrors”. Very soon, however, it became clear that such a method of avoiding a website ban is ineffective, and instead of another site transfer, users began to use circumvention tools. Numerous instructions on the use of proxy servers, VPN and TOR, emerged. And after five years since the implementation of the law, not only the IT- intelligent youth, but virtually any user of Runet was able to visit banned websites. Thus, the ban of the anonymizers can be considered as a counterstroke by the authorities in the face of the failure of the previous policy.

The first blow was struck just before the adoption of the corresponding law. In April of this year, the teacher of the Moscow Financial and Law Academy, mathematician Dmitry Bogatov was arrested on the grounds of publishing a post that called for extremism in the Internet. In fact, his only fault is that he owns the TOR output node, through which, after several redirections, the author of the message went online. The widely deployed action campaign was organized to protect mathematician, which, among others, was supported by Edward Snowden. But despite this action, Dmitry spent more than three months in the Moscow Pre-trial Detention Centre. Many see this as a wakeup call to the developers by the authorities: “Look what will happen with those who advocate free Internet”.

The Victim’s of Russia’s Ultra-Conservatism Are the Russian People Themselves

The majority of the VPN-services operators are unlikely to resign themselves to Roskomnadzor to suffer serious reputational losses.

Nevertheless, the law recently signed by Putin is yet to be the main tool in the fight against anonymizers. In fact, this Act does not indicate the prohibition of VPN, TOR or other tools for anonymizing the users, but forces the company-owners of VPN servers to block all sources submitted by Roskomnadzor. Ksenia Yermoshina compares this struggle to the one against samizdat and the “Voice of America” in Soviet times. She doubts that it will be successful. After all, anonymity is the foundation of the TOR team ideology and, besides, the network provides the “bridges” technology in case of a TOR nodes block in any country. The majority of the VPN-services operators are unlikely to resign themselves to Roskomnadzor to suffer serious reputational losses. Because of that, word leaked out, Roskomnadzor initiated the negotiations with Opera Software. The latest versions of the Opera browser contain a pre-installed VPN option, which can be activated with one click. But it seems that the officials did not manage to convince Opera Software.

Despite this negotiations failure, the authorities do not seem to be very embarrassed. Even if the companies resist and there is no progress in the negotiations, the authorities can simply make it up. This strategy was applied to Google and Apple. According to the Law on the localization of personal data of Russian citizens, adopted in September 2015, both companies had to transfer the server with the accounts of Russians into the territory of the country. It was declared that an agreement had been reached on this matter, but there was no actual transfer of servers.

On the other hand, there are a few cases of reasonably successful state control over the Internet. A classic example is China, where the authorities have learned how to fight anonymizers quite well. The giants of Internet-industry are ready to cooperate with the government, standing in awe of losing billions of users. All VPN-applications recently disappeared from the Chinese AppStore. The Deep Packet Inspection technology used by the state allows it to analyse the contents of transmitted packets, to calculate the use of VPN and to filter traffic. However, the size of the Russian market can be hardly compared to the Chinese one. In contrast to the Asian country, where only two companies have the rights for providing Internet access, it will be much more difficult to force numerous providers to implement DPI technology in Russia.

The special forces of the Ukrainian Security Service visit those who decide to disobey.

Nevertheless, despite all the delays, the Russian Internet is losing its freedom with each passing year. Unfortunately, there is the same situation in Ukraine. Except for several incidents when the large file sharing services Infostore and were closed, Ukrainians up till now could enjoy almost unlimited freedom in the Internet. Everything changed when the “State Support of Cinematography in Ukraine” Act was adopted this year with a norm that allows to block websites for the illegal (according to the opinion of rights holders) audio-visual content without a court decision. Even more striking was the Presidential decree based on the decision of the National Security and Defence Council to ban a number of popular Russian services and social networks in Ukraine. NSDC reference to the current legislative regulations was not valid, as those regulations do not contain such a norm as “the prohibition of providing access services to Internet providers”. Despite this, most Ukrainian providers did not question the decision and preferred to fulfil the requirements properly. The special forces of the Ukrainian Security Service visit those who decide to disobey, such as the large provider Wnet, which was publicly accused of facilitating separatism.

Another step towards Russia could have been made at the last session of the Supreme Council, when the deputies tried to push a pair of draft bills 6688 and 6676 with identical names “On countering threats to national security in the information sphere” in an expedited manner. Both Acts suggest the possibility of blocking the websites solely by the decision of the security services, bypassing the courts. However, introduced at the last moment, the bill 6688 was not included to the order of the day. As for its ‘younger brother’, bill 6667, it collected only 197 votes. Because of insufficient number of votes, deputies were accused of complicity in cybercrimes by Alexander Turchinov.

However, Ukrainian authorities are not going to refuse the idea of Internet censorship under the pretext of the hybrid war with Russia. In a world full of means of anonymizing such prohibitions and bans will never be effective. Considering the fact that after the ban of VKontakte each day more and more citizens familiarize themselves with VPN and TOR, the idea of blocking anonymizers will occur to Ukrainian officials sooner or later. And those bans that are justified in Russia by children’s tears will be justified in Ukraine by those of patriot’s.


The text is based on the interview with cyber-activist and employee of The Centre for Direct Scientific Communication of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Ksenia Yermoshina.

Featured image courtesy of portal gda.