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Russia Bans Telegram, VPN Use Soars. What Should I Do?

It was announced on April 16th that the popular encrypted online messenger app Telegram was to be blocked in Russia. Under new draconian legislation, messaging services must now comply with court orders to hand over their encryption keys the the Russian government. Telegram was not just unwilling to do so, but unable, since their privacy protocols are such that even they don’t have access to these keys.

 

Since that day, the Russian internet has collapsed into chaos. The Russian media regulator, the Roskomnadzor, has blocked access to millions of IP addresses in an attempt to stop Russian people from accessing Telegram. The knock-on effect of this has seen thousands of innocent websites suddenly become unavailable in Russia. As we will explain in this article, the best solution to restrictions on Telegram and the wider internet censorship that is occurring is a VPN.

Best VPN to evade online censorship in Russia

If you have been affected by the chaotic situation on the Russian internet, then you are probably considering signing up with a VPN to save yourself a whole load of hassle. But which VPN to choose? There are a lot of VPNs on the market and, despite Russian government efforts to ban VPN use, almost all of them remain available in Russia.

The type of website currently unavailable in Russia is extremely varied. Everything from online retailers and social media sites to online games and video streaming sites are currently offline. To access all of these, Russians need a VPN which can fulfill a few core criteria. Those are:

  • Fast connection speedsSome VPNs can slow down connections which is not good for any users, but especially bad for online gaming and streaming videos and other content.
  • Encryption strength and security – To keep your online activity hidden from both the Russian authorities and your own ISP, Russian users should be looking for a provider which can offer the strongest levels of encryption possible.
  • Effectiveness of privacy policies – To help keep your online activity safe from prying eyes and the Russian authorities, users will also want to choose a VPN with reliable privacy policies.
  • Size of server network – Russia is a big country and choosing which is the best server to connect to will depend on where you are located. As a result, the more servers available to users, the better.
  • Simultaneous connections – Russian online censorship is affecting all internet connections, so users should be looking for a provider which allows them to use a VPN on all their internet-enabled devices at the same time.
  • No bandwidth restrictions – Some VPNs have data limits which can severely restrict what you can do online. Most users these days will want unlimited access, and this is especially true for those who use the web for data intensive activities like streaming and online gaming.

Having identified these criteria, the next question is which VPNs can tick all of these boxes. We have looked at all the main VPN providers on the market right now to see which VPNs can do the best job for Russian internet users. We have found four VPNs than offer a great all-round service and will suit the needs of almost all Russian internet users. Those VPNs are:

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is a premium VPN provider that delivers everything Russian internet users need from a VPN provider right now. They specialise in super-fast connection speeds, and their huge network (more than 1,500 servers in 94 countries around the world) consistently offers some of the best speeds around. Their encryption is robust too, with 256-bit AES encryption over OpenVPN as standard. Being located in the British Virgin Islands means ExpressVPN can offer fantastic privacy provisions including a completely reliable no user logs guarantee.

ExpressVPN has no bandwidth restrictions for any subscribers and you can use their service on up to three devices at any one time. This is not as many as their rivals but should still be sufficient for most users. Their prices are a little higher than many of their competitors, but their large and loyal customer-base suggests that they do still offer excellent value for money.

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2. IPVanish

IPVanish is another world-class VPN provider which offers a great service for Russian internet users. Its reputation is built on its super-strong encryption provisions, and their L2TP and OpenVPN protocols both use 256-bit encryption as standard. IPVanish also offers shared IP addresses and a kill switch to all users. Their privacy policies are also excellent and they are another provider which offer a reliable no user logs guarantee.

While strong encryption might be their most prominent feature, IPVanish can also offer fast connection speeds too. Just as importantly, these speeds are also consistent across their entire server network too. That server network is another big one, with more than 850 servers in 60+ countries around the world open to all subscribers. They have no bandwidth restrictions and also offer five simultaneous connections to every user. Their all-round service is excellent and IPVanish is another VPN which will offer a secure and fast VPN service to all Russian internet users.

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3. NordVPN

NordVPN is relatively inexpensive, but still provides world-class service. There was a time when NordVPN had a reputation for being a bit slow, but they have since made a sizable investment in upgrading their network to super-fast servers.  Their encryption is also very robust with 256-bit encryption on OpenVPN connections available as standard as well as the usual features such as a kill switch and shared IP Addresses.

NordVPN also has an impressive range of additional security features including double VPN servers (which encrypt your data, passes it through a proxy server, then encrypts it again before routing it through yet another server) along Onion over VPN servers (which push your traffic through the TOR Network as well as a VPN for additional security). Their privacy provisions are second to none, with no user logs guaranteed. And their server network is one of the biggest around, with an enormous 1779 servers available in 61 countries globally. With no restrictions on user data and up to six simultaneous connections for every subscriber, it is little wonder Russians are turning to NordVPN in such large numbers.

Why was Telegram blocked in Russia? 

In 2016, Russia passed sweeping new counter-terrorism legislation commonly known as the Yarovaya Laws. Part of this new legislation was a requirement that encrypted communications providers must allow Russian security and intelligence agencies access to their services. Failure to do so would result in a fine at first and continued non-compliance would see the service being blocked altogether. Telegram, which was founded by Russian citizen Pavel Durov, was one of the first to fall victim to these new rules. In 2017, they were fined 800,000 rubles (US $14,000) for refusing to hand over their encryption keys to the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

They appealed, but in March of this year, the Russian Supreme Court ruled against them and gave Telegram a deadline of April 4th to hand over their encryption keys or see their service blocked across the country. Telegram responded by explaining that the demand was “technically impractical” because the way Telegram sends encrypted messages means that the company itself simply doesn’t have access to the Encryption keys. They also argued that the ruling was unconstitutional in Russia because it breached Russian citizens right to freedom of communication. Having missed the April 4th deadline, the Russian media regulator, known as the Roskomnadzor, announced on April 16th that Telegram would be blocked across Russia.

How has Russia tried to block Telegram?

Telegram was aware that the Russian authorities were likely to try and block their service in Russia. Given that Russians only made up 7% of Telegram users, other companies might have shrugged their shoulders and turned their focus to other markets. But Telegram was founded by a Russian and Pavel Durov was determined to keep his service available in his home country. Telegram, therefore, preempted the move by shifting their entire service onto shared servers, primarily hosted by Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services. The effect of this is to spread their service over a huge number of servers. To completely block Telegram, Russia would have to block millions of different IP Address. The question was whether Russia would choose the nuclear option or not.

The answer could already be seen in their recent efforts to block another encrypted communication app called Zello. In that case, the Roskomnadzor provided ISPs in Russia with a list of 36 different Internet subnets which they were required to block. These comprised a total of more than 15 million IP addresses. And of course, they have tried a similar approach with Telegram. It is difficult to make an accurate estimate of the extent of these blocking efforts in this case, though one report (in Russian) makes a conservative estimate of almost 18 million IP addresses being blocked.

The knock-on effect of efforts to block Telegram

Moving Telegram onto shared servers means it is not the only site using those IP addresses. So, when the Russian authorities blocked those servers, they also prevented Russians from accessing a huge number of other innocent websites too. Given the number of IP addresses being blocked, it is no surprise that thousands of other websites are reporting connectivity issues in Russia. Affected sites include Google, YouTube and Gmail, as well as Viber, Spotify, and the Russian language social media network Odnoklassniki. A number of online games are currently unavailable in Russia including Guild Wars and World of Warships are also offline. Additionally, countless online retailers (including Amazon) and other websites are also reporting issues too.

Ironically, one online service which doesn’t seem to have been taken down is Telegram, which continues to be accessible in Russia more than a week after this ban first came into force. While there is believed to have been a decline is access to Telegram of around 70% it is still available, and the service has added a useful feature for Russian users which allows them to switch IP Addresses within the app if they encounter a problem.

How is this possible? The blocking efforts of the Roskomnadzor have been scattergun at best and the size of Telegram means that blocking access completely would involve taking down pretty much every AWS and Google Cloud server. As they make up a huge chunk of the internet, that would be a huge gamble by the Russian authorities. And the ban on Telegram has actually ironically served as a great marketing tool for the service in Russia. It is being discussed in Russian media and more Russians are aware of the service than was the case before. Indeed, it has been reported in some quarters that there has been an increase in the number of downloads of Telegrams app in Russia since April 16th.

Where do VPNs come in?

VPNs are an effective tool for accessing censored content online. As part of the inherent security and privacy benefits they bring, a VPN can encrypt your online data and also change a user’s IP address. This is the piece of code which tells ISPs and websites where in the world you are located. If you are in a country where internet censorship is commonplace, such as Russia, by connecting to a VPN server outside of your country, you are able to view websites that are usually unavailable. And because your data is encrypted, your ISP cannot see what you are doing online to place restrictions on you either.

The Russian authorities are well aware of how VPNs are used and actually banned them in Russia from November last year. But this ban has had no impact so far, with many experts suspecting that authorities in the country lack both the resources and technical knowledge to be able to implement an effective ban. Telegram, too, are aware of the potential of VPNs and see them as valuable tools in their campaign to keep their service available in Russia. Pavel Durov has recently pledged millions of dollars in bitcoin funding to VPNs which remain operational in Russia. And the statistics suggest that the Russia people are well aware of the importance of VPNs to their continued free use of the internet and services like Telegram too.

Our study shows a huge spike in VPN use in Russia

An examination of search engine results for the term ‘VPN’ across Russia shows an increase of almost 240% in the number of people running a search on the term. This pattern is consistent across the whole country, not just in major cities as might have been expected. Indeed, it was in smaller cities and towns such as Krasnoyarsk Krai (270% increase), Rostov (260% increase) and Omsk (240% increase) where some of the biggest increases were seen.

It seems that this spike has been caused not so much by people wanting to access Telegram, but the other websites which have got caught up in this issue. Searches for terms ‘VPN Telegram’ or ‘Telegram VPN’ were only up by around 104%, whereas the term ‘VPN’ on its own saw a much higher increase. We can, therefore, deduce that the efforts by Russian authorities to block Telegram is having the unintended consequence of driving more internet users behind encryption than was the case before.

Of those VPNs that we have recommended for use to get around the Telegram block in Russia, VyprVPN reported a growth in new accounts in Russia of more than 190%, while mobile downloads were up 198%. ExpressVPN reported even bigger increases with a 300% rise in sales to Russia. And NordVPN, which is gaining tremendous popularity in Russia, reported a 254% rise in sales there. Their CEO, Marty P. Kamden, released a statement highlighting these figures and said, “We are having a lot of first-time users from Russia. People simply need to connect to a VPN server to reach any IP address where they can download Telegram.” Our data suggests that may not be the primary motivating factor, but it is clear that more Russians are now accessing the internet via a VPN than ever before.

Conclusion

Russia’s attempts to block Telegram has resulted in a massive increase in VPN use across the country, which the authorities there obviously hadn’t foreseen. While their efforts to block Telegram have been largely ineffective, they have successfully taken scores of other websites down. This has left frustrated Russian internet users with little choice but to turn to a VPN to gain access. As a result, their online data is all now protected by their VPNs encryption and no longer accessible to the Russian authorities either. The whole purpose behind the Russian regime’s efforts to block Telegram is to gain more control over what Russians are doing online. But their bungled attempts have had the opposite effect and actually raised the profile and usage figures of tools which help keep Russians private and secure online as well as granting them access to a free and open internet, unrestricted by the Russian state. And they can still use the Telegram messaging service if they want too.

Have you been affected by the Russian government’s efforts to block Telegram? Are you a Telegram user or have you found other sites you frequent have gone offline? Have you turned to VPN to regain access? Which of the VPNs we have recommended in this article do you use? How effective have they proved to be? We are always interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of all our readers, so why not share them with us using the comment box below!

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