Slowly but surely, the Russian government is finding reasons to impose even more restrictions on the free and open internet. Tutanota, a secure email service based in Germany, is the latest privacy-oriented email provider to find itself blocked by Russian internet censors. This, unfortunately, should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the latest events regarding the Russian government’s relationship to the global internet.
When the Blocks Started
Russia began blocking private email services like Protonmail under the guise that false terroristic threats were being sent to the Russian government from users utilizing these services. At first, the Russian governments blanket statement was that its vendetta was not with the email provider, but with the individuals abusing it and wasting their time and resources.
On the surface, it almost seemed justified. When the blocks were presented as a way to contain potential acts of terror and prevent the waste of government resources, it seemed to be a controversial solution to a problem that genuinely needed one. It no longer appeared that way when other private email services, such as Tutanota, came under fire.
Why Secure Mail Services are Really Being Blocked
The Russian government demands open access and easy entry to any third party’s services. Secure services like Tutanota cannot provide that access – it defeats the entire point of their platform. You cannot claim to provide a genuinely private service if you’ve handed the government the keys to monitor the operation. Tutanota, like most reliable privacy service providers, would never comply with such requests.
This puts them at a standstill with the Russian government. If services can’t comply, they can’t exist. They’ll get the ax just like Tutanota did. Tutanota’s founder, Matthias Pfau, expressed his outrage at the block. He has expressed in no uncertain terms that he condemns the censorship by the Russian government and calls to attention that Russia is not the only country to make a similar move. In 2019, the Egyptian government also blocked Tutanota’s domain.
RuNet and What It Means
Russia is making a concerted effort to eliminate as much of the free and open internet as possible. The Russian government mandated that surveillance and control equipment be used by all internet service providers. They’ve also created the structure for a solely Russian intranet, where the government would have the ultimate authority to control and monitor everyone’s use of the web.
Secure email services will continue to be blocked, as will all other privacy oriented apps, services, and websites. Russian citizens are likely to be using the internet to figure out necessary workarounds before RuNet becomes Russia’s sole internet, and the government is making moves akin to pre-emptive damage control.
RuNet is being tested on a regular basis, but does not appear to be fully ready to roll out. It would be wise for Russian citizens who value their privacy to start implementing sustainable workarounds that will allow them to easily rebound from RuNet becoming an unwanted fixture in their lives.
What to Do About It
In most countries with intranet systems and heavy censorship, including countries in which VPN use is explicitly or technically illegal, there are some workarounds. Governments can detect most VPN use, as shielded traffic comes with a header in its packet that denotes it is being protected by a VPN. Stealth VPNs will hide this information, a process also known as VPN obfuscation. Stealth VPNs make traffic appear to be normal HTTPS traffic, which is exactly what the overwhelming majority of all internet traffic amounts to.
Utilizing a Stealth VPN will allow users to bypass blocks put in place by the government without setting off any alarm bells. This means that they can utilize secure email services in conjunction with their VPN use and keep themselves safe from prying eyes. At the time of publication, TorGuard VPN and PrivateMail secure encrypted email service are both accessible from Russia. Set them up now – before it gets difficult.