First hand experience with Internet censorship in Russia

Spending two weeks in Russia I had an opportunity to look at how their Internet censorship system operates in practice. As human rights watchdogs alarmed already, the scope of blocked websites now goes way beyond the typical criminal content declared initially by the government and now routinely includes political content. The good news is that the system is still easily bypassable even by an unexperienced user.

This screenshot shows two versions of popular oposition website Glavnoe.ua, an Ukrainian news agency that was blocked for critical commentary on Russia's policy in Crimea and Ukraine:

The right hand screenshot is standard message displayed when a blacklisted content is requested from any network in Russia. The block is country wide and mandatory for all Internet service providers. This is how it looks like from the network point of view:

$ curl -v http://grani.ru
* About to connect() to grani.ru port 80 (#0)
*   Trying 104.130.144.172...

The IP 104.130.144.172 seemed to be an original IP assigned to grani.ru at that time, as it resolved in the same way both in Russia and outside. What happens next is interesting:

* Connected to grani.ru (104.130.144.172) port 80 (#0)
> GET / HTTP/1.1
> User-Agent: curl/7.30.0
> Host: grani.ru
> Accept: */*
> 
< HTTP/1.1 302 Found
< Location: http://95.167.13.50/?st=8901&dt=104.130.144.172&rs=grani.ru/

So the HTTP connection to the original server is captured on the way at one of the intermediate networks in Russia and a HTTP redirect is injected, taking the user to the censorship's system brochure page. The IP 95.167.13.50 belongs to Russia's primary communications operator, formerly state owned Rostelecom and is seemingly used by all other operators as the redirection target. The website at http://95.167.13.50/ just displays the generic "resource censored" message with a couple of links to the governmental pages.

The actual list of blocked sites is not being published by the censorship agency (Roskomnadzor) but is available from independent sources such as Antizapret.info (anti-ban in Russian).

At this moment the censorship is easily bypassable using either proxy websites, such as cameleo.ru, VPN (I actually made the screenshots using my HavenCo VPN subscription, which is simple UDP OpenVPN terminating in USA) or TOR Project.

However, the lawmakers in Russia are progressing at fast pace. Initially, president Putin promised that "no one is going to fight the Internet freedoms", that the sole purpose of the system is to protect children and that Russia is definitely not going to "follow the Chinese model". Roskomnadzor representatives last year declared that the system so far has been used to block "only the absolute evil, such as children pornography, drugs and suicide instructions".

These declarations however are far from reality as of summer 2014 when many websites were present on the blacklist that had nothing to do with these criminal activities. Most notably political oposition websites such as Ежедневный журнал (Daily Journal), Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow), blog of Alexey Navalny (politician and candidate for Moscow mayor), page of Garri Kasparov and Grani.ru. Following the war in Donbass and separatist referendum in Eastern Ukraine, Russia has blocked any pages mentioning similar initiatives in their own jurisdiction — specifically in Caucasus (goodbyekavkaz.org), Siberia and Kuban.

As Anton Nosik, editor in chief of major Russia's news portal gazeta.ru pointed out in a recent interview, all the necessary laws are already in place in Russia to block virtually any website or Internet service for any reason the government wants...