As Vladimir Putin gets help from China to restrict the internet, more people in Russia are losing access to the websites they depend on. This guide will show you how to unblock censored websites in Russia.
Ever since Putin’s re-election to the Russian Presidency, his government has tried to regulate what anyone in Russia can see or say on the internet. Blacklisted websites are blocked by the nation’s internet service providers. Bloggers get jailed under anti-terrorism laws for criticizing Putin’s policies – or even playing PokemonGo in church. The business-focused social network LinkedIn has been banned outright.
Fortunately, using a virtual private network (VPN) will allow you to unblock any website in Russia. Read on to learn more about VPNs, as well the VPN service we recommend for unblocking websites in Russia.
Unblock Censored Websites in Russia With StrongVPN
We recommend StrongVPN to anyone who needs to unblock censored websites in Russia. The twelve-year-old company helped pioneer personal VPN services. Over that time it built a large global presence and now operates more than five hundred servers in twenty-two countries.
What is a VPN?
For those who haven’t used this technology before, here’s a quick VPN primer. Two simple-to-understand, but highly sophisticated techniques lie at the heart of all VPN services: tunneling and encryption.
Tunneling Through the Web
VPNs create a private, virtual tunnel between your computer and the service provider’s servers. As far as anyone on the outside can tell, your connection to the internet begins and ends at the VPN’s location which could be in a different country.
It’s a little like bypassing the Russian postal service by FedExing your mail to Germany. Your letters get a German stamp and nobody knows they came from Russia. Return mail gets delivered to the German address, packed into a FedEx box, and shipped directly to you in Russia.
A VPN’s tunneling system gives you a private connection to the internet that bypasses brute-force forms of censorship. Since Russian internet service providers can’t see the addresses of sites you visit, they can’t block your access to censored websites.
Encryption, Anonymity, and Privacy
The second technology powering a VPN is encryption. Advanced algorithms scramble the data in each packet to the point that censors, hackers, and other snoops would need centuries of computing time to put them back together again.
This helps defeat more sophisticated forms of internet censorship called deep packet inspection. Rather than look at the addresses on the outside of the packet, these tools look at the data inside the packet for patterns that match, say, a YouTube stream. If those patterns aren’t there, they can’t be blocked.
VPN Service Providers
VPN service providers like StrongVPN have other techniques that they use to stay a step ahead of the censors. For example, each server that VPN users log into has its own IP address. If the censorship systems in Russia or China identify that IP address as belonging to a VPN provider, they could add that address to the blacklist. That would stop the VPN software from forming its virtual tunnels. The more servers and IP addresses a service provider has, the less likely they are to get shut down.
StrongVPN’s size and resources let it provide a class of service that other service providers struggle to match.
Thousands of Tunnels
I mentioned earlier that the company has operations in twenty-two countries. It has more than eighty thousand IP addresses assigned to the five hundred plus servers in those facilities. StrongVPN can replace those IP addresses so quickly that it rarely goes down for long.
Where most VPN companies will provide 256-bit encryption on the theory that, if it’s good enough for the US government, it’s good enough for their customers. StrongVPN gives its customers the option of scaling that encryption all the way up to 2048-bit encryption. Even with the most powerful supercomputers in the world crunching their way through the data, your data will still be secure.
StrongVPN provides another service that defeats internet censorship by routing around government efforts to filter the domain name system. StrongDNS is an alternative DNS that your computers and Wi-Fi routers can use instead of the DNS provided by your internet service provider. The service connects to more than 500 dedicated anonymous servers, bypassing the systems put in place by government censors. Available separately for $5 per month, it’s a standard part of a StrongVPN subscription.
StrongVPN does not provide a trial period, but it does provide a five-day money-back guarantee which makes testing the service painless. The three subscription plans – monthly, quarterly, and annual – StrongVPN offers meets the different needs of its customers. The base plan starts at $10 per month with a 20% and 41% discount for the longer-term plans.
You don’t have to take our word for it. Nearly six thousand customers have left positive reviews on the StrongVPN website. They praise the service for its speed, stability, and customer support.
“…to get access to blocked sites In general I’m very satisfied with the service. I like that i doesn’t lose connection normally. Speed depends on your original Internet speed, but quite good” Mikhail C.
To see why StrongVPN is necessary when visiting or living in Russia, let’s take a look at how Russian internet censorship has evolved and where it might be going.
A Virtual Iron Curtain
Russians once enjoyed full and open access to the Internet. Over the past five years, however, Vladimir Putin”s government has been chipping away at that access. Web pages with criticism of Russian policies like the annexation of Crimea get blocked all the time, but people in Russia can still access global social media companies like Facebook. That could change soon as, with help from China, Putin’s control of Russians’ internet experience gets stronger.
Censoring the Web Since 2012
Putin’s re-election to the Russian Presidency in 2012 was met with widespread protests and allegations of vote-rigging. In response, his government put in place a series of laws to regulate what people in Russia can read or say on the internet.
The Single Register
Roskomnadzor is the federal agency responsible for controlling the internet in Russia. It maintains a blacklist of webpages and websites, called the Single Register, that the Russian government does not want its citizens to see. Roskomnadzor gives the Single Register to Russian internet service providers who must block their customers from accessing banned sections of the web.
They do this through techniques called IP blocking and domain blocking. Every website has two addresses. The words that we type into the browser, called the domain name, makes the web easier for us to use while the numerical internet protocol addresses are used by computers to route data around the web.
Originally intended to block access to sites that promote drug use and suicide, the Single Register’s criteria has expanded over the past five years to include any web content critical of the Russian government. But the censorship does not stop there.
In their recent book, The Red Web, two Russian journalists document the rise of Russia’s internet censorship policy. An extended excerpt published in The Guardian tracks the development of SORM, the System of Operational-Investigatory Measures (the acronym SORM is from its Russian spelling). It creates a backdoor in Russia’s telecom companies through which Russia’s secret police, the FSB, can monitor communications. Unlike in the United States where the FBI asks a phone company to tap a specific phone number, FSB agents can monitor anyone they want, whenever they want.
The FSB gets access to more than just voice calls. They use deep packet inspection to scan data as it flows through the Russian internet. Without any independent oversight, the FSB has free reign to find out what anyone in Russia is saying on the internet.
What Gets Banned In Russia?
IP blocking sounds like a precision operation, but standard aspects of web browsing makes it more of a blunt instrument. A secure form of browsing (the https you see in in front of web addresses) encrypts most of the address you type into your browser. The only thing ISPs can see is the website itself, not the specific page.
That forces Russian ISPs to block an entire website in order to comply with Roskomnadzor’s orders. Russian censors targeted Wikipedia in 2015 when they placed a page about cannabis on the Single Register. Since Wikipedia uses https, the entire encyclopedia could have disappeared from Russia. Before the full force of the ban went into effect, however, Wikipedia’s editors changed the page enough to get removed from the Single Register.
Other censorship laws require online companies to keep data about their Russian customers on servers in Russia, making it easier for authorities to access the data whenever they want. Last November, business networking site LinkedIn became the first American company targeted under the law. LinkedIn refused to move data onto Russian servers, so Roskomnadzor blocked all access to LinkedIn in Russia. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are still available, but many experts looked at the LinkedIn ban as a not-so-veiled threat from the Russian government.
But Doing It Badly
Unfortunately for Russia’s censors, they have not been very consistent. IP and domain name blocking are brute-force tactics easily bypassed thanks to VPN providers like StrongVPN. And Russia’s reformers are resisting with help from social media and a little reverse-engineering of Roskomnadzor’s own censorship tools.
“Blogger Law” Absurdities
According to FreedomHouse’s annual Freedom on the Net report, Russian authorities have stretched existing censorship laws to absurd extremes. Legislation called the “Blogger Law” bans posts that incite or support terrorism. That was enough for judges to sentence blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky to house arrest. His crime? He filmed himself playing PokemonGo in a church. Another blogger, Vadim Tyumentsev, will spend the next five years in prison for encouraging people to protest rising bus fares.
In an embarrassing reversal, the Russian government found itself on the receiving end of its own censorship. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that government websites suddenly vanished from the Russian internet – including censorship HQ at Roskomnadzor.
Freedom advocates hacked a weakness in the Russian government’s censorship system. It turns out Roskomnadzor can’t do anything directly. It relies instead on private sector internet service providers to do the work – and they do the least amount of work possible. Rather than applying sophisticated technologies to their customers’ data, the ISPs simply block any IP addresses assigned to websites listed on the Single Register.
The open-internet advocates bought the domain names of any blacklisted websites abandoned by their original owners. They then registered those domains with the IP addresses of government sites. The ISPs did what they were told, matched the domain names with the IP addresses, and chunks of the Russian government’s internet presence went dark.
Is YouTube Too Big to Block?
The challenge Russia’s censors face is that Russians really like their internet access. According to FreedomHouse, more than 70% of Russians have internet access at home with download speeds averaging 10 megabits per second. Reform advocates, in particular, rely on companies like Facebook and YouTube to coordinate their work.
This past March, opposition politician Alekei Navalny used YouTube to level corruption accusations against senior members of Putin’s government. Not only did the video generate more than 24 million views, it also sparked the largest anti-government protests seen in Russia for half a decade. Smaller follow-up demonstrations have been happening ever since, including one last month where a thousand people declared their support for an open internet.
Turning to the Great Firewall of China
China’s internet censorship system, commonly called the Great Firewall of China, is remarkably effective. So effective, in fact, that the Russian government has consulted with Chinese officials for advice on adapting their approach. Andrei Soldatov, an internet expert in Russia, told Slate Magazine that Russia is looking at the Great Firewall “mostly because many other things failed – filtering is porous, global platforms defy local legislation and are still available.”
Why is Chinese Censorship More Effective?
Simply put, the Chinese government got a head-start and never let its people get a taste for the open internet in the first place. A freewheeling period of openness followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During that time independent telecoms deployed internet technologies and the Russian people embraced the freedoms the internet offered.
Post-Cold War Chinese history was been more evolutionary. The Communist Party always maintained strict controls over what speech was allowed and what technologies had to be used. As a result, the world’s social media giants, as well as websites critical of Chinese policies, are invisible to Chinese citizens.
Internet Censorship With Russian Characteristics
The Russian government has already applied the lessons it’s learned from the Chinese. Vocativ reported that Roskomnadzor targeted communications apps used by protestors. WeChat went down briefly, but the government blocked apps from Zello and Blackberry completely.
President Putin took another page from China’s book last month when he signed a law that makes VPN technologies illegal. This is similar to Chinese legislation that forced Apple to pull dozens of VPN apps from its China app store.
Russian censorship of the internet will get stricter as China helps Putin’s government implement stronger measures. Fortunately, people traveling or living in Russia have options. With global resources at its disposal, industrial strength encryption, and customer service that garners praise from customers around the world, StrongVPN is an ideal tool for unblocking censored websites in Russia.