In recent years, Russian authorities have done much to prevent Internet users located within the country from accessing illegal online content. As of 1 November 2017, a new law will close some backdoors to the ‘forbidden fruit’. Not surprisingly, the new rules may jeopardize the use of corporate VPNs of international companies. How can a business keep its VPN running even if Russian employees want to see more than they are allowed to by the state?
Backdoor to Illegal Content
There are several types of online content that are illegal and subject to ban in Russia. They include, among other things, war and suicide propaganda, instructions on the preparation of drugs, child pornography, extremist materials, unlawfully published personal data and some pirated intellectual property. Banning procedures vary depending on the nature of the illegal information, but the result is always the same – access restriction to a relevant website. The Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) keeps records of websites and their network addresses and demands that website owners and hosting providers ban illegal content. If they fail to do so, all Russian Internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to block users’ access to the forbidden content. That is why the ban can be easily bypassed if users access a website through a non-Russian ISP. Here is where online VPN services step into the breach and assist Russians in moving Internet traffic through exit nodes beyond Russian borders. Corporate VPNs work in the same way, but for a different purpose, as they help establish secured connections between all parts of a corporate network. In the meantime, Russia-based employees of international companies may enjoy uncensored Internet via their corporate computers.
On 29 July 2017 the Russian President signed amendments to the IT Law  introducing the following rule: owners of information and telecommunications networks and/or information resources (Internet websites and webpages, information systems and computer programs) that are used to provide access to information resources and information and telecommunications networks banned in Russia, are prohibited from allowing the resources and networks they own to be used in such a way as to allow access to banned resources and networks within the territory of Russia (the Prohibition). Hence, the law touches upon both online VPN services intended for private users and business solutions such as corporate VPN clients.
According to the amendments, an ‘owner of information and telecommunications networks and/or information resources’ (i.e., a VPN owner) will have to connect to the federal state information system which contains a list of information resources and networks access to which is restricted in Russia (the State Database). The State Database will be maintained by Roskomnadzor and will filter all censored content. In case of non-compliance, Roskomnadzor may deny access to VPN through Russian ISPs. As of today, the Prohibition is primarily targeting publicly available VPNs, but corporate networks also fall under the Prohibition according to its literal reading. For this reason, the amendments provide for two exceptional cases.
The Prohibition will not apply to state and/or municipal networks and also will not apply in situations where two conditions are fulfilled:
(a) the users of the VPN that allows access to illegal content banned in Russia are predetermined and
(b) VPN is used for technological purposes of supporting operations of the person using it.
The law does not elaborate on these two conditions which leaves them open for interpretation.
At this point, it is clear that a VPN owner should list all Russia-based employees using the VPN in order to meet the first condition. According to a common business practice in Russia, the list should be prepared in writing and adopted by the CEO of the company. However, determining which company needs to prepare the list in a group of companies may prove to be difficult. The Russian IT Law knows no distinction between the parent company, which usually owns the VPN tools, and its subsidiaries and affiliates, the employees of which use the corporate VPN. Another thing to consider is guest networks which may share the same VPN connection with corporate networks. If that is the case, the company should keep a record of visitors using the guest network to comply with the requirements of the Prohibition.
As to the second condition, the actual scope and limits of ‘technological purposes’ seem unclear. The company should somehow ensure that its Russia-based employees do not use the VPN for any purpose other than the ‘technological purposes’. In addition, it is uncertain whether the ‘person using’ the VPN (as specified in the original legal text of the amendments) means the employee or the company. Whatever ‘technological purposes’ are they surely do not include personal needs of the staff. Based on Russian business practice, the most feasible approach for Russian subsidiaries of international companies is to amend the local IT policies or release a separate VPN policy prohibiting any personal use of the VPN and corporate computer systems connected with VPN as well as any other use aiming at bypassing local (Russian) laws. Such policies must be amended/adopted in a formal procedure according to the Labour Code of the Russian Federation.
It will be clear whether or not these measures are sufficient only after the amendments enter into legal force and Roskomnadzor begins their enforcement. That is why it is advisable to keep an eye on Roskomandzor’s next steps regarding the Prohibition.