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‘Russians will be forced, by their own government, to learn about privacy-protecting technology’ ‘Meduza’ talks to the VPN provider that left Russia after the seizure of its data servers

Источник: Meduza
Photo: Juice / REX / Vida Press

On June 12, the virtual-private-network (VPN) provider “Private Internet Access” announced that it was suspending all operations in Russia because of the government's adoption of recent “anti-terrorist” laws drafted by State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and signed by President Vladimir Putin. The company also said in a statement that some of its servers in Russia were seized by the authorities. In an interview with Meduza, Ted Kim, the general director of London Trust Media, which owns PIA, confirmed the seizure of the servers and discussed the company's work in Russia.

When did you first start working in Russia? What kind of services did you provide?

We first opened our Russian exit node in April 2015. Private Internet Access provides an encrypted VPN tunnel that protects the user’s traffic from their Internet Service Provider (ISP). The Russian exit node was one of many options for countries that Private Internet Access customers can freely access the Internet from.

How big of a market was Russia for PIA? Did you get a lot of users and traffic?

Out of respect for our user’s privacy, we do not keep any user data and we do not have specific numbers for how big of a market Russia was for PIA.

Did you experience any surges in usage or traffic when Russia started regulating the Internet (from 2012 onwards)?

Yes! 2012 onwards is when PIA really started growing. Our active user count and website traffic have always surged when countries pass draconian Internet regulations. This has happened in the past in China, Australia, UK, Canada, and more.

Did you have any physical infrastructure (servers and so on) inside Russia?

We did have 15 servers in Russian territory. We discontinued using all of these servers as soon as we found out that a seizure had happened without due process.

When did you first start having bad experiences working in Russia?

This was the first bad experience that we had working in Russia.

Were there earlier stages when you were required to comply with new restrictive laws?

There weren’t any earlier stages where we were asked to comply with new restrictive laws. We still haven’t received any notice from the Russian government, which our lawyer tells us is very unusual.

In your opinion, how is the most recent law (which requires you to log all Russian traffic) different from previous laws?

The new “Yarovaya laws” require all types of tech companies to keep logs and to hand over decryption keys. Many of Russia’s own tech companies and politicians are warning that the new Russian Big-Brother laws might be economically infeasible to implement.

Were there any indications that the authorities in Russia might move to seize PIA's servers?

There was no indication. We have not received any notice from Russian authorities.

Did they give any warning beforehand? Did they give any kind of explanation? Did they accuse you of violating Russian laws?

We have not received any notice, including warnings, explanations, or accusations, from any Russian authorities.

Did you decide to leave Russia voluntarily, or did the authorities force you to leave?

Private Internet Access decided to leave Russia voluntarily to protest the unjust data retention laws. Along with closing all of our Russian servers, we issued CRLs [certificate revocation lists] for our Russian gateways and rotated our certificates as an added precaution. Furthermore, we do not log anything, so our seized servers will have no information on our users.

Do you believe VPNs, anonymizers, and other Internet-privacy-protection technologies have a future in Russia?

Absolutely. Especially now, Russians should use VPNs to encrypt the very online traffic that is now accessible to the Russian government. Now, more than ever, Russians will be forced, by their own government, to learn about privacy-protecting technology. Even with the dark clouds of a Russian Big-Brother law overhanging, Private Internet Access believes that the future of privacy is bright in Russia.

Konstantin Benyumov

Riga