In the last ten years, the amount of Russians with internet access has more than doubled, and now stands at approximately 76% of the population. However, the Kremlin maintains strong controls over its use and imposes strict restrictions on privacy enabling tools.
In this guide, we explain Russia's internet censorship and how you can achieve digital privacy in Russia.
Russia is a semi-presidential republic. In such a system, the president is the head of state and executive power is held by the government, which is headed by a Prime Minister who is selected by the president with the approval of parliament. Legislative power resides in the two houses of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.
Despite the pretense of genuine democracy, the reality is that elections are manipulated to impede the formation of genuine opposition. Power is concentrated in Putin's hands and the Kremlin maintains authoritarian control over the country by means of loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, and strict control over the legislature.
Politicians belonging to opposition parties, as well as activists and journalists with dissenting political opinions, are targeted with trumped-up criminal charges designed to stop them from participating in the political system. In 2017, for example, the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was banned from participating in the 2018 presidential race by the Central Election Commission.
With this in mind, Russia is a failed democracy in which elections are corrupt and dissenting views are suppressed using intimidation techniques and violence. In the most recent regional elections, Kremlin-approved candidates dominated and few people turned out to vote. This is primarily attributed to apathy among the general population – who feel that there is no point voting, anyway.
In Russia, it is almost impossible to form opposition parties, and even when those that do stand they have no chance of gaining substantial support. In addition, Russia has a massive corruption problem, which results in dangerous affiliations between criminal groups and the ruling elite.
Also, minorities are excluded from civil society and face serious levels of discrimination. The LGBTQ community is frowned upon and religious minorities are persecuted. In April 2017, for example, the Justice Ministry ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses are an extremist organization and ordered the confiscation of all of its properties.
In Russia, the media is controlled and manipulated using threats, intimidation, and acts of violence. These attacks are primarily carried out by criminal groups on behalf of the government.
In recent years, the high-profile killing of the investigative journalist Nikolay Andrushchenko, and the shooting of Dmitriy Popkov (editor of investigative online publisher Ton-M) helped to cultivate a climate of fear in the lead up to the presidential election. Another investigative journalist, Yulia Latynina, was forced to flee the country after receiving threats and an arson attack on her home.
These attacks helped to solidify Putin's grip over the nation by cementing control over the media. In addition, the news outlet RBC – which is known for criticizing the government and investigating corrupt police officers – was sold to an ally of Putin. Following that sale, a number of journalists resigned.
Corruption and gas-lighting in the Kremlin
A few months later, RBC's investigative journalist Aleksandr Sokolov was jailed for three years on falsified charges of extremism. In reality, he had been investigating the mismanagement of state-owned corporations.
In November 2017, Putin passed new laws that permit the Kremlin to declare foreign-owned media outlets as foreign agents. This led to a number of outlets, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty being censored.
As if that wasn't enough, fake news laws passed in 2019 permit Putin to have any website that criticizes the government, or himself as a leader, taken down. In addition, any criticism of the country's infrastructure, including security agencies, banks, public transport, and energy or communications systems is illegal and can result in prosecutions.
Russia's assault of Ukraine
In February 2023, Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine, and continued to pressure Big Tech into complying with a new "landing law". The law requires foreign digital companies (including Google, Meta, Twitter, Apple, and more) to have a local legal entity within the country and register with Roskomnadzor – the federal body overseeing Russia's mass media.
The landing law prompts digital companies to censor anti-Russia sentiment and push pro-Kremlin voices, and privacy advocates (from within the country and overseas) have decried the law as yet another attempt at dismantling free expression. Tech giants are now caught in a position where they'll need to decide if they cooperate with Russia's newest oppressive mandate – or remove their presence from the country entirely.
Who's going to comply with the landing law?
A Roskomnadzor confirms that Apple, Spotify, and TikTok have complied with the law, with Google poised to follow suit. Meta and Twitter have completed parts of the landing law mandate, though not all, whereas Twitch and Telegram have refused to do so.
Following the introduction of the Yarovaya law in 2016, Putin's government extended its website blacklist – restricted hundreds of extra websites. Pornography and gambling sites are blocked, as are many political or news websites that publish content critical of the Kremlin.
Another law also passed in 2017 forces ISPs to block privacy tools and obfuscation methods such as Tor and VPNs. Since then, many popular VPNs have become unavailable from within Russia – and have been forced to remove VPN servers from the county in order to keep providing a no-logs service to their subscribers.
Other notable services that have suffered blackouts include private messengers such as Telegram (which is now banned). In addition, a huge number of websites such as LinkedIn, Dailymotion, Reddit (temporary), and hundreds of other sites have suffered blocks.
The Yarovaya law is also designed to bolster national security by allowing the authorities to combat terrorism. However, the law also allows the government to perform high levels of surveillance in order to seek out and repress religious groups on the grounds of fighting extremism.
Yarovaya amendments made in 2018 also require telecom providers and ISPs to store the contents of voice calls, text messages, and emails for 6 months, and the metadata from those messages – including the time, location, and sender and recipients of messages – for 3 years. ISPs must share this data with Russian authorities without the need for a warrant.
Russian ISPs have complained bitterly that they cannot afford the infrastructure changes needed to perform this level of surveillance. It has been suggested that in order to comply, the cost of mobile services will double or triple for consumers.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has previously pointed out that because Russia's ISPs, messaging services, and social media platforms cannot afford to meet the stringent surveillance requirements, they will become de facto criminals.
All firms that provide services for Russian citizens must store all their data on servers within the country. Those servers must be accessible to the government without a warrant, making it impossible for privacy services to provide services in the country without breaking the Yarovaya law. It is for this reason that ProtonMail, VPN services, and private messengers such as Telegram have become banned in the nation.
In addition, Putin's government has prepared for the possibility of disconnecting Russia from the international internet – by bottlenecking all traffic routed in and out of the country via a few specific network points. This also permits Russia to perform mass surveillance on all data coming in and out of the country.
In Russia, consumers pirate a lot of content and do so without much active restraint from the government. In theory, Russia has been part of the Berne Convention since 1995, that agreement means that international copyrights apply in Russia. However, in practice little is done to stem piracy of international content within Russia.
In recent years, some ISPs have begun blocking access to certain torrenting repositories. These blocks appear to be random, and they do not apply to all ISPs – meaning that consumers may experience an inability to access certain torrent websites on one ISP but not another. In addition, the social media site VK has begun blocking access to movies and music on its platform.
Where piracy does occur, it does not appear that ISPs are working with copyright owners to hand over IP addresses and other customer details to their lawyers (though it easily could). Thus, it does not appear that Russian consumers are facing litigation or receiving out of court settlement letters for piracy.
However, this could just be due to a lack of public knowledge of cases. The law in Russia specifically states that downloading and uploading copyrighted content can lead to fines (up to 500,000 RUB) or several years (up to 6) in jail.
For this reason, anybody involved in accessing or sharing content is running the gauntlet and could face severe punishment. For this reason, it is much more sensitive to either abstain or conceal piracy using a VPN.