Russia Blocks VPN Services in Information Crackdown

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In a new move to restrict access to information, the Russian government has requested the removal of several virtual private access (VPN) products as well as the ban of voice over IP (VoIP) services.

The London-based independent Russian media outlet MediaZona reported on July 4 that Apple removed 25 VPN apps from its App Store following a request from Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications regulator.

These apps, which include ProtonVPN, Red Shield VPN, NordVPN and Le VPN, “contain content illegal in Russia,” the watchdog claimed.

They have also been included in the "Unified register" of internet resources prohibited for public distribution in Russia.

“This follows previous removals of VPN apps in 2022 and 2023,” noted the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) in a July 6 defense intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine.

In March 2024, Roskomnadzor “gained the power to block access to VPN services without reference to a court,” MoD added.

Apple Criticized for Facilitating VPN Takedown

In a public statement, Le VPN said the takedown was carried out in accordance with No. 7 of Article 15.1 of the Federal Law dated July 27, 2006, No. 149-FZ "On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection" and that its app was removed even before it received the official notice from Roskomnadzor.

MediaZona reported that Le VPN has since launched an alternative service called Le VPN Give that "allows you to connect to our secret servers using third-party open-source software and obfuscated VPN connections."

In another public statement, Red Shield VPN criticized Apple for complying with such requests.

"Apple's actions, motivated by a desire to retain revenue from the Russian market, actively support an authoritarian regime. This is not just reckless but a crime against civil society,” the VPN provider wrote.

On X, Anton Barbashin, the editorial director of Riddle, another independent Russian media website, urged Apple to stop helping “Russian censorship.”

“VPNs are essential for accessing non-state controlled media,” he added.

NordVPN, another VPN provider concerned by the latest removal, shut down all its Russian servers in 2019 amid the adoption of the Sovereign Internet Law, which granted the Russian government powers to partition Russia from the rest of the internet.

According to a recent post by NGO Access Now, the Myanmar junta, in power in the Southeast Asian country since 2021, is currently working on an outright VPN ban.

Russia’s VoIP Ban

In its defense intelligence memo, the UK’s MoD also mentioned that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has required Russian telecommunications providers to stop providing VoIP services, which many instant messaging apps like WhatsApp rely on.

Read more: Russian Government Bans Foreign Messaging Apps

Although the alleged reason for the ban is fighting fraud, the UK’s MoD believes it is “highly likely” intended to increase the Russian government’s control over its citizens and corporate entities.

“These two measures are both in line with Russian efforts to control its domestic information environment and limit citizens’ access to information that does not align with government narratives,” the MoD added.

“The effect of these restrictions is yet to be seen, as educated urban Russians continue to find inventive ways to get around these measures.”

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