Update on the attempted blocking of ProtonMail email servers in Russia

In the past week, the Russian government has been attempting to prevent Russian citizens from sending messages to ProtonMail. We believe this block is unjustified, and we will restore full services to users in Russia.

As some people in the ProtonMail community have noticed, at the start of March, some mail servers in Russia started having difficulty communicating with ProtonMail. While people in Russia are still able to access the ProtonMail website and log in to their accounts, Russian email services like mail.ru cannot reliably send messages to ProtonMail. Over the weekend, the blocking campaign escalated dramatically, even though ProtonMail is not on the official Russian block list, and there was no legal procedure or notification about the block.

Current status

The block does not prevent Russian citizens from using or accessing ProtonMail, it just makes it difficult for Russian mail servers (like mail.ru) to communicate with ProtonMail. As of now, the blocks are still in place, but we have implemented some technical measures to largely reduce the impact of the blocks, so services in Russia are operational at this time. If the situation changes, we will take additional measures as necessary to ensure the proper functioning of ProtonMail in Russia.

Background

The block apparently stems from a secret letter dated 25 February, in which the FSB (the Russian intelligence agency which is the successor to the KGB) ordered two of the largest Internet service providers in Russia, MTS and Rostelecom, to block traffic from Russia going to our mail servers, thus preventing Russian mail servers from communicating with ProtonMail.

On Monday, a firm called TechMedia obtained a copy of the letter and published it on the Russian tech blogging platform Habr. The FSB said the block was a response to fake terrorist threats. In January and February, false bomb threats in Russia led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from schools, rail stations, shopping centers, and offices.

However, the method of the block (preventing messages from being sent to ProtonMail, as opposed to blocking delivery of messages from ProtonMail) seems inconsistent with that claim. Due to the timing of the block, some ProtonMail users in Russia suspect that the block may be related to the mass protests this past weekend in Russia where 15,000 people took to the streets to protest for more online freedom.

Whatever the cause, we don’t believe this blocking of ProtonMail can be justified in any way. ProtonMail provides better email security for millions of people around the world. This is like banning helmets because criminals also sometimes use helmets.

Moreover, when it comes to criminal cases, Switzerland is a neutral jurisdiction that honors international legal norms, and ProtonMail, based in Geneva, also follows this model. If the Russian government brings a criminal matter (such as fake terrorist threats) to the Swiss Federal Police or to ProtonMail’s internal abuse team, it will be investigated. Making false terror threats is illegal in Switzerland, and it is against our terms and conditions to use ProtonMail for criminal purposes. If there is evidence to corroborate the claims, we would take action against the accounts in question. However, the Russian government did not contact us.

If there is indeed a legitimate legal complaint, we encourage the Russian government to reconsider their position and solve problems by following established international law and legal procedures, rather than attempting to deny millions of Russian citizens access to better email security and privacy.

Recommendations for ProtonMail users in Russia

We are carefully observing the situation and will take additional technical measures if necessary to keep ProtonMail operating normally in Russia. Given the current situation, where services can be targeted with little justification, we recommend the following:

1) Use a VPN. A VPN service allows most blocks to be circumvented. For this purpose, all ProtonMail users also have access to ProtonVPN, a free VPN service that we operate. You can simply download the appropriate VPN app and log in with your ProtonMail credentials to use ProtonVPN.

2) Encourage your contacts to use ProtonMail. The blocks attempted by the Russian government do not and cannot impact communications between ProtonMail accounts in Russia. Not only does ProtonMail offer free email accounts it will also prevent any unauthorized third party from eavesdropping because your email communications will be protected by ProtonMail’s end-to-end encryption.

3) Complain to MTS and Rostelecom. If enough people complain, these ISPs and the Russian government may reconsider their approach.

ProtonMail is vigorously committed to protecting Internet freedom. The wholesale blocking of an encrypted email service only makes the Internet less safe, less private, and less free. As we have previously noted, we have a zero-tolerance policy for criminal acts conducted using ProtonMail. Therefore, we encourage the Russian government to contact us if there is indeed a legitimate criminal complaint so that we can render assistance within the Swiss legal framework.

Best Regards,
The ProtonMail Team

You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.

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

Andy Yen

Andy is a founder of ProtonMail. He is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and has a PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about ProtonMail's mission.

 

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4 comments on “Update on the attempted blocking of ProtonMail email servers in Russia

  • I appreciate your position against terrorism … but helmets is not communications, not even like, helmets and communications is totally different things! More precisely, lifes of many terrorist victims at once could be saved with communication control, but helmets could barely protect a few victimvs of the terrorist attack.

    Reply
  • I presented this issue when proton vpn was considering placing servers in Russia. The governmental constraints placed on their internet services are monitored while being manipulated and exploited by the FSB/ GRU (formerly the KGB) in opposition to democracy and personal freedoms globally. Along with the Chinese government and several others, it is weaponized as a divisive cyber warfare tool for social influence and propaganda against democratic society’s. Putin has blatantly stated this fact to the press. Some current examples include the 2016 US election and ongoing deterioration of the country, Brexit, the Yellow Vests in France, Venezuela, Austria, targeted data breach hacking campaigns of corporations and governments exposing sensitive financial and medical information of millions of citizens, etc.

    The great challenge is how to provide user access without the system being used or exploited by adversaries with a very different purpose.

    Thank you for your service.

    Reply