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

Get a free secure email account from ProtonMail.

We also provide a free VPN service to protect your privacy.

ProtonMail and ProtonVPN are funded by community contributions. If you would like to support our development efforts, you can upgrade to a paid plan or donate. Thank you for your support.

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.

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13 comments on “Update on Belarus blocking Proton servers

  • Do you have any plans to create some kind of bridge between protonmail and other email providers to use your secure infrastructure to deliver emails on protonmail?

    Reply
  • Is it possible for the Protonmail team to discuss and evaluate options to circumvent censorship in the future?
    Like Domain Fronting or some similar approach the Tor project is using via bridges or obfuscation.

    It would be nice to read some plans or at least info about you discussing this, however it turns out.

    Reply
    • We are working on some innovative solutions to this, but we can’t provide details yet. We’ll keep you posted as soon as we can.

      Reply
  • Oh so now all of a sudden protonmail will scan through all our emails in order to help Belarusian government find this one guy. Nice. So basically all the staples that made us support the project don’t matter anymore.
    All this years supporting as a visionary for nothign…smh

    Reply
    • Hi, I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but no need to worry! For one, we aren’t able to scan emails because of our end-to-end encryption and zero-access encryption. Second, we only help law enforcement when we receive a valid order from the relevant Swiss authorities in our jurisdiction, and as far as we know, Belarus never contacted anyone in Switzerland with a foreign assistance request.

      Reply
  • OK so I have to know is Protonmail going to be political activist organization or an email provider? Because upi obvioulsy can’t be both! I don’t need your justifictiion or your “FREDOM” BS. Because MY LIFE was totally effed this weekend while I spent 2 days wonder why my email service was down then having to install software I don’t want and don’t trust on my PC, not being able to track my financials as PM is my 2nd step verification for account, get to informaiton for flights I am taking over the next few weeks, book or buy anything and get confirmation emails or access the hundreds of emails with information I store on Protonmail because it is secure.
    While the Belarus government was out of line blocking protonamil for the weekend of the election coincidentally Proton mail has also been actively supporting dissidents beyond providing email services. There are ENOUGH people in the world causing problems and if you don’t make problems there won’t be problems.

    Reply
    • Hi Robert, I see your point, and I’m sorry you weren’t able to access your ProtonMail account this weekend. That’s extremely frustrating. Did you try using Tor? We published this post both to encourage the government to unblock our service (which, as of this morning, they did) and to share with users in Belarus how to avoid the block (which we reproduced on our subreddit in case you weren’t able to access the blog). Note, we do not “actively” support dissidents, but we do support their right to privacy, security, and freedom of expression. This is one of our core values, and we will not compromise on these principles.

      Reply
  • Gee My comment is awaiting Moderation… isn’t that what you are complaining about… blocking protonmail is about the easiest moderation method there is to make sure people only say what you want to hear
    .

    Reply
  • Seems like our authorities testing different type of blocking.
    And I see that they banned DNS resolution from Proton IPs for local services:


    Name service error for
    name=tut.by type=MX: Host not found, try again

    Also, all my domains failed with NS in Belarus and I’ve got this emails

    [NOTICE][URGENT] DNS issues detected for your custom domain

    I had to move my domains to external DNS hosting, and it works.

    Reply
  • https://protonmail.com/blog/lifetime-account-auction/
    After a careful review, we selected two organizations from the ProtonMail community (ProtonMail users) and another organization that is well aligned with the goals of ProtonVPN.

    Charter’97

    Charter’97 is an independent Belarusian media outlet that promotes democracy and human rights. It is the largest independent news outlet in Belarus. Its editor-in-chief, Natalya Radina, is a well-known investigative journalist who was imprisoned for her reporting and is now working in exile. Due to the government crackdown, finances have become tight for Charter’97, and our support will help to keep the site running.

    Learn about Natalya’s story or donate through our blog post here.

    Bid on the Lifetime Account to support Charter’97 here.

    Ahhhhh Ummm The Belarus Government PROBABLY considers this support of a dissident organization.. I actually asked why you were doing it at the time and Darko said pretty much what you did. I must be psychic seeing it would cause problems one day…. Isn’t it enough you are suppling this service which keeps the corporate universe and the governments ou tof our lives which have become totally dependent on everything we do being digitally recorded and tied to us though our email accounts? And I am willing to pay for it but it must work. Really the whole world needs to use secure email just ot keep thier whole lives from being run for them by big data but they haven’t quite woken up to that yet….

    Reply
    • I’m sensitive to what you’re saying, and this is indeed a concern for us (we don’t claim to have perfect answers). But again, if your government blocks ProtonMail, you should still be able to access us via Tor. Moreover, Charter’97 is an independent news agency, and we’re proud to support their important work. They have a right to freely use the Internet to publish their reporting and commentary, and we will not compromise on this belief.

      Reply