A rally against blocking the Telegram app showing Russia's efforts to crackdown on the darknet and censorship-resistant technologies

Digital Iron Curtain: Russia Intensifies Crackdown Efforts on the Darknet and Censorship-Resistant Technologies

The Kremlin has intensified efforts to crack down on the darknet and other censorship-resistant technologies. The government is looking for a vendor who can create a solution to block censorship-resistant technologies from the country. The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, Roskomnadzor, is accepting bids from companies capable of blocking mesh-networks. The Russian language crypto news media, Forklog, obtained this information after it was published in the General Radio Frequency Center.

Technologies targeted by the darknet censorship

The government in Moscow is targeting a list of technologies that allow users to access restricted services. The list includes mesh networks, the Tor Browser Virtual Private Network, Zeronet, Freenet, the Invisible Internet Project, and the Telegram Open Network (TON). The government in Moscow has classified these services as darknet, thus intending to block their access. Darknet networks are a group of secret websites that exist in an encrypted network. The Russian government claims that it does not target specific companies but rather the technologies used to create anonymous darknet networks. The Kremlin accuses those services of hosting content deemed extremist or restricted. Darknet services are popular with groups whose aim is to avoid government censorship and mostly used for criminal activity. However, classifying common services as a darknet for purely censorship purposes is a new low for the government in Kremlin.

Reasons why the Kremlin is targeting Telegram

Telegram has faced various censorship attempts by the government in Moscow. The company challenged in court the government’s order to hander over its encryption keys used for private communications. Although Telegram lost the case, it eventually refused to hand over the keys.

Telegram is also working on blockchain technology, as well as the TON anonymity service. The service will allow internet users to bypass government censorship and access content restricted by Russian internet service providers. In the past, the government in Moscow has been hostile towards cryptocurrency providers. It has already blocked six cryptocurrencies without warning the users. Telegram is also facing problems with authorities in the United States over its token sales. The private messaging app was being accused of selling its token as an unregistered security. The Blockchain Association and Chamber of Digital Commerce stepped in to save the app by filing an amicus brief during which Telegram had a favorable judgement.

Many governments are hostile towards applications that allow encrypted communication while denying authorities a means to spy on people’s conversations. Western governments impose censorship on communication technologies such as Telegram. They, therefore, find other ways to keep such applications in courtrooms until they finally cave in. Many application developers secretly comply with the government to avoid persecution, thus compromising their users’ privacy.

Circumventing censorship

Since 2017, the Roscomnadzor has tried to block the use of Telegram but failed. Telegram applies a method called domain fronting, which hides its services behind other services’ domains. The General Radio Frequency Center’s supervising agency attempts to block telegram resulted in blocking other services while leaving Telegram operational.

According to TON Labs Chief Technology Officer Mitja Goroshevsky, attempts to impose internet censorship on the network are futile. Goroshevsky says that the possibility of successfully blocking the TON network is just five percent. He adds that to block access to the TON, the FSB would have to compromise over 30 validators, most of whom are based outside Russia.

TON is also working on developer tools, which will make it more difficult to impose censorship on the service by distributing the service.

The digital Iron Curtain

The Russian Federation is working on a mechanism to unplug its internet from the rest of the world. The new tool, also known as Sovereign Runet, operates like China’s Great Firewall. The network is marketed as a means to preserve Russia’s internet connectivity during times of global internet disruption. However, it also allows the total government control over the internet with the possibility of shutting down the Russian internet from the rest of the world. President Putin signed the bill authorizing the existence of Runet on May 1, 2019.


Staff Correspondent at CPO Magazine