Russian LGBT Internet Censorship
In the past year, the LGBTQ+ community has experienced increased persecution in Russia. To find out how the latest legislation has undermined internet freedom in the country, we decided to investigate the websites officially blocked by the government.
Although the LGBTQ+ community in Russia has faced persecution for well over a decade both online and offline, the Kremlin has recently taken unprecedented steps to eradicate all LGBTQ+ internet content in the country.
On 5th December 2022, Putin signed a new law prohibiting the spread of any information about “non-traditional relationships” to both adults and children. This expanded existing 2013 legislation that’s been called “a classic example of political homophobia” by Human Rights Watch. It has already been used to sue social media platforms, shut down NGOs and imprison individuals.
To gauge the impact of the changes on Russia’s internet, we analyzed over 200,000 websites blocked in the country since January 2022.
The number of LGBTQ+ websites blocked since the law was passed has increased by 127% compared with the equivalent prior period. While the majority of these were adult websites and may have been blocked under existing anti-porn legislation, we also identified a significant increase in the number of LGBTQ+ charities, news websites, and blogs being restricted.
On September 1, Roskomnadzor’s criteria for blocking LGBT content came into force. The agency also launched an initiative that allows ordinary citizens to flag websites they think should be taken down.
In the the two weeks that followed, we documented a 725% increase in LGBTQ+ websites blocked in the country compared with the prior 20 days. Blocked websites include dating sites, a transgender legal support charity and a queer digital library.
While the rate of website blocking has slowed since, it remains 354% higher than before the criteria was published.
Although Roskomnadzor frequently only lists specific URLs for ISPs to block rather than the entire domain, blocking a single web page requires a level of precision normally only possible on HTTP connections. However, data from Cloudflare shows that 98.9% of all connections in the country utilize the HTTPS protocol, which means that entire websites become collateral damage when a single page is blocked.
For this reason, we have included entire websites in our analysis even if it’s only an individual web page that appears in the blocklist.
The increased censorship of LGBTQ+ websites coincides with a huge increase in spending by Roskomandzor. It’s not just this type of internet content that’s being blocked, in total we’ve documented over 4,000 websites blocked in the country due to content related to the conflict.
This heightened internet censorship, along with the increased surveillance of peoples’ internet activity, has prompted millions in Russia to turn to VPN (Virtual Private Network) apps.
Internet Censorship in Russia: How does it work?
Internet censorship in Russia has drastically increased in recent years and now hundreds of websites are often added to the block list each day.
To keep up, Russian censors have been working to centralize the internet censorship process by installing sophisticated deep packet inspection (DPI) devices across telecommunication networks.
This allows censors to block a website across every network in the country, rather than working with internet service providers (ISPs) and relying on them to block access to the websites.
The devices can reportedly be triggered by SNI, IP, and QUIC-based traffic, each of which leads to unique blocking characteristics.
However, this isn’t the case in every instance and often certain websites will be blocked on certain networks but not on others. Likewise, each ISP uses distinct methods to block websites, whether that’s HTTPS manipulation, IP address blocking, or DNS tampering.
The most common form of internet censorship in the country is DNS based interference and RST packet injection during TLS handshakes. This means connections using both HTTP and HTTPS protocols can be disrupted.
Whatever the method of blocking, internet censorship in Russia can still be circumvented with the use of VPN apps. In response, there has been a rapid increase in VPN blocking in the country, as well as new laws that could significantly limit their use.
To conduct this study, we analyzed websites listed in Roskomnadzor’s official unified register of forbidden websites. To determine the relevancy of a website we searched the URL, domain and metadata of thousands of sites for specific keywords before manually reviewing the results. While the majority of the entries relate to adult websites, we have also conducted analysis of non-adult websites via additional filtering.
Despite being the most comprehensive and accurate data source available, there have been reports that suggest Roskomandzor is blocking some websites without adding them to the unified register. Given that, our findings are a conservative estimate of the true picture of LGBTQ+ internet censorship in Russia.
We will continue to monitor how this legislation undermines internet freedom and human rights in Russia in the following weeks.