Update on Belarus blocking Proton servers

illustration of belarus blocking protonmail

UPDATE Nov. 19, 2019: We have recently confirmed that our users in Belarus can access ProtonMail and ProtonVPN once again. While there has been no official communication as to why ProtonMail and ProtonVPN were unblocked (or why we were blocked in the first place), public outcry seems to have played a part. Both Roskomsvoboda, a Russian anti-censorship organization, and Habr, a Russian-language collaborative blog similar to Hacker News, quoted our blog post. We thank our users for their support. Going forward, we hope governments contact us via the proper legal channels if they are pursuing a legitimate criminal investigation.

On Nov. 15, we confirmed that the Belarusian government is blocking ProtonMail and ProtonVPN IP addresses. We are still investigating the block and reaching out to Belarusian authorities to restore email and VPN access to our many users in the country.

Although the government has not released a statement, local reports suggest the government is blocking ProtonMail allegedly because of suspected criminal activity by one of our users. We take strong action against illegal activity on our site, and we are happy to assist law enforcement through the proper legal channels.

However, we do not believe the wholesale blocking of Proton is justified, and we condemn this form of Internet censorship.

What we know about the block

On Friday, media outlets and users in Belarus began reporting that ProtonMail and ProtonVPN were not accessible. 

Through contacts in Minsk, we confirmed that specific IP addresses of Proton servers were being blocked by Internet service providers. As a result, users within Belarus cannot currently use ProtonMail or ProtonVPN.

Some information suggests the government’s decision to block Proton may have been motivated by bomb threats allegedly coming from a ProtonMail email address. However, like a similar temporary block by the Russian government in March, this explanation does not make sense: blocking access to ProtonMail would not prevent cybercriminals from sending threatening emails by using another email service, and would not be effective if the perpetrators were located outside of Belarus. It is also likely that cybercriminals would be able to easily bypass the block.

Blocking an entire email service is an ineffective and misguided method of responding to the criminal actions of individual users, especially when millions of people use ProtonMail to communicate and protect their privacy. This is akin to blocking Twitter entirely just because some Twitter users are engaged in criminal activities. It is not possible to prevent all criminal use of ProtonMail, but there are established legal procedures for handling such incidents.

Proton is committed to preventing the use of our platform for illegal activities. We comply fully with Swiss law, and we will cooperate with criminal investigations to the extent required by law. There are well-established international legal procedures for requesting the disabling of the offending account and opening a formal police investigation in Switzerland. However, in this case, neither ProtonMail nor Swiss authorities were contacted regarding this matter, which is highly unusual.

Recommendations for users in Belarus

If you are affected by this block, there are some ways you can bypass it. For now, we suggest taking these two steps:

1. Use Tor

The most effective way to bypass censorship of ProtonMail is to connect to the Tor network. Anyone can easily connect to Tor using the Tor browser (Download the Tor browser here). Once connected on Tor, you can access ProtonMail normally without any issues. If Tor is also blocked, the Tor Project has provided simple instructions:

If you want to be extra secure, as an optional step, you can also access ProtonMail by using  our hidden service at protonirockerxow.onion 

2. Complain to your Internet service provider

Public pressure from ISP customers may encourage the Belarusian government to remove the block and try a different approach. This tactic may have previously played a part in helping us get unblocked in Turkey and Russia. 

You should also encourage your contacts to use ProtonMail (and Tor if necessary). When your contacts also use ProtonMail, your messages are automatically end-to-end encrypted, meaning no one can access them, including us. Sending emails between ProtonMail accounts can also help avoid different types of censorship methods that block the delivery of messages to our servers from non-ProtonMail accounts.

Going forward, we hope the Belarusian government will reconsider its policy, which has done nothing but served to reduce the Internet security of its own citizens by denying them access to secure email. We are available to assist in any legitimate criminal investigations that follow the proper legal channels. 

Best Regards,
The Proton Team

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About the Author

Ben Wolford

Ben Wolford is a writer at Proton. A journalist for many years, Ben joined Proton to help lead the fight for data privacy.