Did Russia Just Effectively Outlaw Internet Anonymizers?

Russian officials have long debated banning Tor and other anonymizers. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Russian officials have long debated banning Tor and other anonymizers. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

A Russian court has ruled to block part of the website of RosKomSvoboda, a Russian Internet freedom and human rights organization, on the grounds that the page in question is an anonymizer—a tool that allows users to access content and websites that might be banned in Russia. The ruling is alarming because anonymizers and similar tools are not currently prohibited in Russia.

The court decision was made on April 13, when Anapa city court (Krasnodar region, Russia) ruled to block http://rublacklist.net/bypass – a section of the website owned by RosKomSvoboda that provides instructions on how to bypass geoblocking and access websites blacklisted in Russia. The court ruling claims that the webpage “is an anonymizer” and that “by using this website citizens can get unlimited access to the prohibited content, including extremist content, through anonymous access and substituted user IPs.”

Although the court ruling came in April after the local prosecutor's appeal, RosKomSvoboda only learned about it on May 27 and did not receive any warnings, Sarkis Darbinyan, the organization's lawyer, said. Darbinyan also said they were surprised at the page being labeled an anonymizer, since it contains no such tools, only instructions for Internet users. The organization's legal team plans to appeal the ruling.

Artem Kozlyuk, head of RosKomSvoboda, called the accusations and the court ruling “absurd” and wondered if the officials had a clear idea of what anonymizers were.

The workers of the law enforcement demonstrated their complete incompetence in the basic knowledge of all the common technical aspects of the network, though even youngsters can understand it. The anonymizers, proxies and browsers are multitask instruments, helping to search the info on the Internet.

Although the court ruling mentions anonymizers, it ostensibly uses roundabout reasoning to blacklist the RosKomSvoboda webpage. Because the information on the page “facilitates users’ access to websites with content from the Federal extremist materials list,” the page itself must be “banned on the territory of Russian Federation,” according to the text of the ruling published online. The court also lists some of the extremist materials that could be accessed using the bypass instructions and ultimately uses the law on counteracting extremist activity as the main grounds for the ban.

Still, the fact that the court specified the term “anonymizer” as one of the premises for blocking the page is worrying, since anonymizers, proxy-servers and other similar tools are not currently prohibited to use or to publish information about in Russia.

Russian officials have debated restrictions on VPNs and anonymizers for the last few years. In 2013 Russian media reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was considering lobbying the State Duma with a bill banning “Tor and other anonymizing proxy servers,” but the idea never got out of committee. In February 2015, Leonid Levin, an MP heading the parliamentary committee on information policy and communications, suggested that access to anonymization and circumvention tools such as Tor, VPNs, and proxy-servers needed to be restricted. In 2014, the Russian Interior Ministry also offered almost 4 million rubles (about USD $100,000) to anyone who could devise a way to decrypt data sent over the Tor network.

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