VPN ban is Kremlin’s latest effort to quash dissent

by Braxton Taylor

As throngs of Russians took to the streets Friday to mark the passing of anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny, the Russian government tightened its grip on free speech and accurate information by forbidding companies to offer or advertise virtual private networks, or VPNs, not approved by the government. 

The new ban, which had been announced in the fall, is intended to stop people from using a VPN to get around Russian internet monitoring and censorship. Previous efforts to better control what Russians can learn and discuss include the blocking of Facebook and Instagram, criminalizing open dissent of government policies and “disrespect” to government officials, and jailing journalists such as The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich. 

Many Russians—perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent—have responded by using VPNs. (A greater slice of the American population uses VPNs, but this includes many who do so at work as part of their employers’ cybersecurity efforts.)

Even before the VPN ban took effect on Friday, the Kremlin had curbed its population’s ability to use them. 

“In 2023, we received many confirmations that several VPNs were partially or completely blocked in parts of Russia, and sometimes the entire country. These are blockings based on protocols and signatures that essentially block the whole technology and all the services that work on its basis,” the Moscow Times reported this week.

But that hasn’t stopped Russians from accessing VPNs elsewhere. 

“Russian authorities have been slow to act. Their moves have also been predictable, giving market players time to prepare and adapt. As a result, the eternal cat-and-mouse game between censors and those who strive for a free internet continues,” the Moscow Times wrote.

What’s next? The Russian government has been experimenting with a nation-wide intranet system that would allow it to disconnect from the global World Wide Web entirely. But these experiments have met with mixed and unreliable results. 

All hope is not lost, said Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an adviser at the CNA Corporation

“There are market solutions still available to the Russians. The [Times] article also correctly hints that tech progress will be faster than the Russian government’s ability to react to VPN developments. Finally, Telegram as a media network where many Russians turn for the news will become even more important, both as a source of info about the war and about tech developments that interested Russians need to get access to information,” he said.

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