Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Russians Find Ways to Bypass Latest Web Ban

Russians are circumventing a ban on the country’s largest movie-download site by using various software tools.

As Vladimir Putin tightens his his grip over the Internet in Russia, the latest target is the country’s largest movie-sharing website. Last week, the Russian communications watchdog shut access to RuTracker.org, a local equivalent of the Pirate Bay. The blocking hasn’t quite worked out as planned.

Traffic to RuTracker during the first week after the ban's imposition fell by less than 15 percent, according to researcher LiveInternet.ru. On Sunday, the busiest day for the site, RuTracker received 11 million visits, compared with an average of 13 million before the ban.

Russians found ways to circumvent the blocks instituted by local Internet providers. Just as RuTracker advised its users, anonymizing tools allow them to continue accessing the site. Such software prevents Internet providers from detecting a user's location, so they can’t block access. Similar techniques are used by Web users worldwide to access versions of Netflix and other services outside their home countries, where the content available may differ from what's offered by the same company elsewhere in the world.

The most popular of these anonymizing tools are Web browser plug-ins such as Anonymox and Freegate, RuTracker said. Some users turned to other software such as Tor, a tool used for browsing the so-called dark Web. Tor's data show that the number of users in Russia rose about 35 percent this year, to 250,000 as of Feb. 1.

President Putin's increased control over the Internet extends beyond piracy. In 2014, Russia began blocking websites with content federal prosecutors consider to be "extremist." Last year, Putin requested that global Internet companies store any personal data about Russian users on servers located within Russia. The government also began requiring bloggers to register with a local regulator and to be liable for what they publish.

Piracy has taken on greater urgency since the World Trade Organization pushed Russia to step up countermeasures. RuTracker, along with Russian social network VK.com, has for years been on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Notorious Markets List.

Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said previously that users will eventually get tired of bypassing the blocking and will turn to legal video- and music-streaming services such as Netflix, iTunes, Google Music, and their local clones. However, Russian officials may be overly optimistic. "I doubt that Russians will massively switch to legal services, given recession and falling incomes," said Karen Kazaryan, an analyst at researcher Russian Association for Electronic Communications. "Moreover, it’s rather easy to bypass blocking, and torrents offer a wider content library."

RuTracker offers 1.6 million items of content, including movies, songs, e-books, and software. And it is set to grow larger. Previously, the site said it complied with copyright owners’ requests to remove access to certain materials said to violate copyrights. RuTracker, which keeps its servers outside Russia, said following the ban that it will no longer do. "We stopped cooperation with copyright owners after the blocking," the site said.

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