Great Firewall of China goes Russia: Upcoming Internet shutdown
The recently approved law banning anonymizers and virtual private networks (VPNs) is not only a measure to ensure compliance with an earlier law blocking blacklisted web sites, but also another step towards Internet censoring.
On November 1, 2017, the ban on anonymizers, virtual private networks (VPNs), and other tools allowing to bypass Internet blocks comes into effect in Russia. In fact, these online tools can continue working in our country – but only provided that they block user access to blacklisted web sites themselves. Otherwise the tools are subject to blocking. Web sites with instructions how to bypass blocks are to be banned as well, while web search engines won’t be able to provide links to those.
The amendments to the Federal Law On Information, Informational Technologies and the Protection of Information developed following an initiative of the Security Council have been promptly approved by both chambers of the Parliament and signed by the President.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation are to enforce compliance with this law. The special services have an order to identify the block bypassing tools, while the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) is to contact the software owners, request them to comply with the law, and in the event of a refusal, enter them into its register, in accordance with which, providers must block them.
The possibility to use VPN services for corporate purposes will remain – but only for a predetermined group of users.
It is necessary to keep in mind that Roskomnadzor has been blacklisting hundreds of web sites every day for the last five years based on court verdicts or requests from various governmental agencies – the Federal Tax Service, MIA, Federal Drug Control Service, Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), Roskomnadzor itself, etc.
How this works
The majority of VPN services are registered abroad; it is unlikely that they rush en masse to adjust to the quickly changing Russian legislation.
On the other hand, some of the VPN services are likely to obey the Russian authorities and restrict access for Russian users – concurrently trying not to lose them as clients completely: after all, VPNs are required not only to bypass blocks, but also to protect data – for example, in the banking sphere or open Wi-Fi networks. The change of the IP address is not the goal but a side effect of traffic encoding due to the data processing on the provider’s server. It is understood that VPNs are essential for cyber security; therefore, the new law allows their use for corporate purposes.
Alexander Zharov, Head of Roskomnadzor
Browsers enabling users to download and install VPN extensions or having embedded VPN features (e.g. Opera) are a separate topic. Ultimately the officials may decide that Yandex.Browser is sufficient for us – chances are high that Yandex agrees to comply with the new game rules. If not, several billions of rubles could be allocated to develop a new domestic browser. According to various estimations, $20–50 million have been spent to produce Sputnik browser and search engine that fell short of expectations – in thee years of its existence, Sputnik managed to capture less than 1% of the Runet search market.
Those willing to stay on the Russian market would have to remove VPN extensions from their browsers, as well as from Google Play Market and App Store. Apple Inc. has already shown its stand on that issue by removing the VPN extension from its online store for Chinese users.
Anonymizers are the easiest issue: these can be blocked similarly with other blacklisted web sites.;
It won’t be a problem to block Tor – especially taking that Roskomnadzor does not even have to notify anybody: the network is administered worldwide by volunteers. Up until recently, there were 37 such volunteers in Russia (now their number is probably less), including mathematician Dmitry Bogatov released from a pretrial detention facility, who had an exit node in his home providing traffic for other users. Ultimately, this has led to his arrest. Somebody had created a topic “We demand system changes in the country!” on a forum and posted several entries interpreted by the law enforcement authorities as an incitement to mass riots and terrorism. The special services came to the user whose IP was exposed. By the way, the ‘rebellious’ entries were posted under different IP addresses located all over the world – Bogatov was just the closest one.
However, the Chinese experience shows that instead of one shut down VPN service, two new ones appear. The emergence of ‘black’ VPNs is inevitable – technologically skilled guys would rent servers in Europe, create VPNs there and provide services – for a reasonable payment – to those willing to download a movie from torrent trackers or read alternative news. Representatives of the new generation would feel themselves like Soviet dissidents listening to ‘enemy radio stations’ at night.
The authorities started actively regulating the Internet back in 2012. After the mass protest rallies on Bolotnaya square and Sakharova avenue in Moscow, the law introducing black lists of web sites has been approved upon the following pretext: “the children must be protected from information that harms their health and development”.
Materials containing child pornography, providing instructions on drug production and use, enticing to commit suicide, and describing suicide methods were supposed to be blocked.
However, the commencement of the law has immediately revealed its flaws. Wikipedia, the largest online encyclopedia and its comic counterpart Lurkmore have been blacklisted by Roskomnadzor for drug abuse propaganda, while the Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation has banned the web site of EVE-online for the term “drug” frequently used on the game forum as a slang word. The watchdog authority has found instigation to suicide on the web site of the Vvedensky (Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple) Parish of the Rostov-on-Don Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and in the psychological report “Suicide. How to prevent self-killing” posted on a student web site. Access to Google and YouTube had been closed for a short time as well.
If required, this law could be used to ban some Soviet cartoons, classic paintings and sculptures, etc.
The poor equipment capability of Internet providers responsible for the blocking and lack of technical knowledge among Roskomnadzor officers have resulted in further problems. For example, web sites banned in Russia became unavailable in adjacent CIS countries serviced by major Russian providers, including Beeline and Rostelecom. Instead of one web site, dozens of innocent Internet resources having the same IP address were often blocked. Or instead of one page, the entire web portals were banned. This is exactly what has happened with The CrimeRussia: our web site was blacklisted after a complaint brought by Abdula Dzhamalkhanov, ex-Investigator of the Main Investigations Directorate for the City of Moscow of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR), against an article stating that he had gunned down a person in a Moscow restaurant. Interestingly, this news is still available on Life.ru, Zona.media, and Moskovsky Komsomolets (it can be found using the on-site search, although the article has been removed).
The poor performance of Roskomnadzor is not surprising – once the agency has blocked itself (the Moscow City Court ruled to block domain karaoke-besplatno.ru, and officers of the watchdog authority mistakenly entered their own IP address into the register). Too bad, it was not blocked forever...
Concurrently with the Internet censorship development, the State Duma approved a number of prohibitive laws increasing the liability for “mockery of religious beliefs” and gay propaganda among minors, legalized the “right to be forgotten” (and now the ex-leader of ‘Solntsevskaya’ gang commonly known as ‘Mikhas’ forbids everybody to call him this way), classified the information about the assets of civil servants, imposed restrictions on news aggregators (thus, forcing News.Yandex to stop using some information sources), forced Internet users to keep their personal data on servers located in the Russian Federation, and ultimately approved the notorious ‘Yarovaya law’ also known as Yarovaya Package. The law imposes an obligation to store traffic metadata for a year on Internet providers and requires mobile operators to store records of all calls and all the messages sent by users for six months.
Zona.media invented this euphemism to avoid prosecution:
"Two 13-year-old girls committed [Roskomnadzor] in Tula
According to the web site of the Regional Investigations Directorate of the ICR, a pre-investigation check is ongoing in Tula after the discovery of bodies of two 13-year-old girls on April 3 near one of the homes.
According to the investigation, the girls have committed [Roskomnadzor] by jumping from the sixth floor of an unfinished high-rise building in the Proletarsky district of Tula.
Investigators of the Investigations Directorate for the Tula Region are conducting a check and establishing the facts of the incident."
In addition to the new restrictions, the ‘good old-fashioned’ Articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation – 280 (Public Appeals for the Performance of Extremist Activity) and 282 (Incitement of Hatred or Enmity, as well as Abasement of Human Dignity) – have got a second wind.
With the coming of the Internet to each and every home, the work of operatives became much more simple – why look for neo-nazi or Islamist groups in the real world when there are plenty of materials available online?
For example, after the forced sale of VKontakte social network by its founder Pavel Durov and his emigration, VK gladly collaborates with the law enforcement services – and the number of so-called ‘re-posting cases’ is steadily growing.
A Tver resident has been sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in a settlement colony for posting somebody else’s material proclaiming the territorial allegiance of Crimea.
A political activist from Tomsk has been sentenced to 5 years behind bars for videos inciting – according to the court ruling – people to participate in unauthorized protest rallies and “stirring up hatred to residents of self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics”.
A Perm resident was fined under the ‘nazism rehabilitation’ Article of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for “false information about the invasion of the USSR in Poland”.
A female journalist was fined in Smolensk for posting on VK a photo of her yard during the German occupation – the picture showed German troops and a banner with swastika.
A Kazan resident was fined for posting a like under a shot from American History X movie.
A dispute in VK has resulted in a criminal prosecution of a Stavropol resident who had denied the existence of God and named the Bible a “collection of Jewish tales”.
Late Internet businessman Anton Nosik was charged for a LiveJournal entry supporting the Russian military operation in Syria and calling for massacre of Syrians.
But the case against Evgenia Chudnovets was the most high-profile and absurd. Chudnovets, who used to work in a kindergarten in the Kurgan region, has been sentenced to a jail term for re-posting a video received by her and showing, according to her opinion, sexual abuse of a child. Under the re-post, Chudnovets put a comment condemning the thing shown in the video in order to attract the public opinion to that incident. The Prosecutor’s Office had requested 5 years behind bars for her, but the court convicted the woman to 5 months. After the intervention of the President, the sentence has been cancelled one month prior to the prison term expiration and Chudnovets got out of jail.
According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, some 500 people have been convicted for extremist statements in 2016 alone. 85% of these people were prosecuted for Internet publications. Almost all of them had used VKontakte.
The investigative documentary “Chaika” has resulted in a new round of repression, including pressure on the Internet. Yuri Chaika, Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, has commented the materials linking his children with the gang of Sergei Tsapok charged with murder of 12 people in Kushevskaya village of the Krasnodar Krai as follows:
“After the publication of the film in Russia, an enormous, unprecedented, and insulting attack has been carried out against myself and members of my family in several European countries – in newspapers, on TV, and on the Internet. It was obvious from the very beginning that it was beyond the capacity of Navalny, with his two criminal records, to produce such an expensive and full of lies movie about the Prosecutor General of Russia. It is not only my opinion, by the way. I am sorry, but such a large-scale international attack is beyond the capacity of many national governments”.
In other words, the punitive machine accelerated so much that the children and potential suicides have been forgotten. The authorities started blocking undesirable web sites due to political reasons – there were no other valid grounds to shut down such opposition resources as Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, or Ej.ru. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, “a significant part of materials posted on the web sites contain incitements to mass events conducted in contravention of the law”. There is also no logical explanation for the blocking of LinkedIn – a business- and employment-oriented social networking service.
However, the Internet has reacted to all this prohibitions as a free network – by creating block bypassing tools easy to master even for schoolchildren. At some point, the authorities began understanding this. The authors of the bill wrote as follows in the explanatory note: “the practice existing since 2012 has revealed the insufficient effectiveness of blocks”; search engines still provide links to blocked resources; and it is possible to use technologies enabling to access blocked information resources.
Interestingly, after the blocking of Russian social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki and Yandex and Mail.Ru services by the Ukrainian authorities, Russian officials responsible for the Internet had actively encouraged the Ukrainians to struggle against these bans. For example, German Klimenko, Presidential Adviser for the Internet Development, said that the efforts of the Ukrainian authorities are ineffective because the people would learn how to use VPNs and Tor. Alexey Volin, the Vice Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation, has noted that the only public reaction to such prohibitions should be mastering of programs enabling to bypass the blocks. Russia-24 governmental TV channel has broadcasted a detailed instruction how to use anonymizers and VPNs. What are these people going to suggest the Russians now?
Video: Russia-24 how to access a blocked web site?
What comes next?
The Internet became an integral part of our life. It is impossible to simply shut it down – for good or for ill. But upon taking control over the TV, radio, and main printed media (the majority of people read those on the Internet anyway), the state now wants to seize this last frontier of freedom of speech and opinions differing from the official one.
The Great Firewall of China officially known as Golden Shield Project has been launched in China in 2003. It is a network of servers installed on the Internet channel linking the providers and international information transmission systems and filtering the contents. Access to a number of foreign web sites is restricted in the framework of this project – for example, foreign social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, are not present in China. News taken from foreign media are subject to special approvals. Foreign search engines, including Google, Yahoo, and Bing, are filtering search results and blocking access to web sites recognized ‘politically improper’ by the Chinese authorities
Should it be impossible to clamp down on the bypassing of blocks by users (in fact, it is technically impossible with the current equipment capability of Internet providers), then the authorities have to make another step – oblige all the providers to install DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) system able to filter the entire traffic and completely block VPNs.
Not all providers would be able to afford the expensive new equipment – so the Internet market is going to become less competitive. It can’t be ruled out that in the end, the state completely monopolizes it and Rostelecom becomes the only available provider.
On the other hand, it may not be necessary to install DPI everywhere. For instance, in China, VPNs are not banned legally (the authorities are planning to do this in the coming year). But it is forbidden to ‘visit prohibited areas’ – and everybody is aware of this. Therefore, the next step of the Russian authorities can be imposition of administrative – or even criminal, depending on the political situation – liability for visiting blocked web sites. The providers can already see when encoded traffic is coming to your IP address.
If so, the authorities do not even need to ban VPNs – because all of us would be on the hook and law enforcement structures can strike any time they want. The FSB powers would be very handy in that situation.
Such restrictive measures would deter a large portion of users from forbidden web sites – after all, who needs unnecessary troubles? It is absolutely possible to live without exposures of corrupt officials.
By the way, the arrest of Bogatov could be not a coincidence – perhaps, the development of tools allowing to counter block bypassing tools has already started?
Why is this necessary?
The ‘encapsulation’ trend set by our authorities and vividly demonstrated in 2014 (import substitution, turning towards the East, living in a fortress under siege surrounded by enemies, etc.) implies further ‘Sinification’ of the domestic Internet, including national search engines, national social networks, national Wikipedia, etc.
Of course, this would be done under the banner of struggle against terrorism and extremism. But the FSB always had plenty of powers with regards to accessing various means of communication – without any prosecution warrants or court verdicts. In the last years, we have seen a growing number of people prosecuted for incitement to anti-corruption protest rallies, support of opposition parties, and expression of opinions different from the General Line. But where are trials of terrorists found in the Internet?
In Europe (e.g. in France where the terrorism problem is very actual), no one is trying to restrict the Internet. Furthermore, it is believed that its openness helps the secret services to monitor the situation, while tightening the screws would drive the criminals to DarkNet – a network existing outside the Internet and unavailable for exterior control.
At the same time, totalitarian countries – Iran, Egypt, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc. – actively use prohibitions on messengers, blogs, and media, especially in politically volatile periods.
Recently Roskomnadzor has announced the creation of an ‘anti-black’ list for web sites not recommended for blocking. Currently this list includes over 2000 bona fide Internet resources. The signal is clear: in the end, we will have not hundreds of thousands of banned web sites, but a few thousand ‘authorized’ ones – morale-boosting and following the General Line.
On the other hand, if we are following the Chinese example, let’s follow it in everything – become the ‘world industrial site’, develop new technologies at an unbelievable pace, build million-strong cities from scratch, and lay high-speed railroads and modern highways throughout the country... And of course, deal with our corrupt officials in the same way as the Chinese authorities do.