Mozilla, the maker of the popular web browser Firefox, said it received government demands to block add-ons that circumvent censorship.

The Mozilla Foundation, the entity behind the web browser Firefox, is blocking various censorship circumvention add-ons for its browser, including ones specifically to help those in Russia bypass state censorship. The add-ons were blocked at the request of Russia’s federal censorship agency, Roskomnadzor — the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media — according to a statement by Mozilla to The Intercept.

“Following recent regulatory changes in Russia, we received persistent requests from Roskomnadzor demanding that five add-ons be removed from the Mozilla add-on store,” a Mozilla spokesperson told The Intercept in response to a request for comment. “After careful consideration, we’ve temporarily restricted their availability within Russia. Recognizing the implications of these actions, we are closely evaluating our next steps while keeping in mind our local community.”

“It’s a kind of unpleasant surprise because we thought the values of this corporation were very clear in terms of access to information.”

Stanislav Shakirov, the chief technical officer of Roskomsvoboda, a Russian open internet group, said he hoped it was a rash decision by Mozilla that will be more carefully examined.

“It’s a kind of unpleasant surprise because we thought the values of this corporation were very clear in terms of access to information, and its policy was somewhat different,” Shakirov said. “And due to these values, it should not be so simple to comply with state censors and fulfill the requirements of laws that have little to do with common sense.”

Developers of digital tools designed to get around censorship began noticing recently that their Firefox add-ons were no longer available in Russia.

On June 8, the developer of Censor Tracker, an add-on for bypassing internet censorship restrictions in Russia and other former Soviet countries, made a post on the Mozilla Foundation’s discussion forums saying that their extension was unavailable to users in Russia.

The developer of another add-on, Runet Censorship Bypass, which is specifically designed to bypass Roskomnadzor censorship, posted in the thread that their extension was also blocked. The developer said they did not receive any notification from Mozilla regarding the block.

Two VPN add-ons, Planet VPN and FastProxy — the latter explicitly designed for Russian users to bypass Russian censorship — are also blocked. VPNs, or virtual private networks, are designed to obscure internet users’ locations by routing users’ traffic through servers in other countries.

The Intercept verified that all four add-ons are blocked in Russia. If the webpage for the add-on is accessed from a Russian IP address, the Mozilla add-on page displays a message: “The page you tried to access is not available in your region.” If the add-on is accessed with an IP address outside of Russia, the add-on page loads successfully.

Supervision of Communications

Roskomnadzor is responsible for “control and supervision in telecommunications, information technology, and mass communications,” according to the Russia’s federal censorship agency’s English-language page.

In March, the New York Times reported that Roskomnadzor was increasing its operations to restrict access to censorship circumvention technologies such as VPNs. In 2018, there were multiple user reports that Roskomnadzor had blocked access to the entire Firefox Add-on Store.

According to Mozilla’s Pledge for a Healthy Internet, the Mozilla Foundation is “committed to an internet that includes all the peoples of the earth — where a person’s demographic characteristics do not determine their online access, opportunities, or quality of experience.” Mozilla’s second principle in their manifesto says, “The internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.”

The Mozilla Foundation, which in tandem with its for-profit arm Mozilla Corporation releases Firefox, also operates its own VPN service, Mozilla VPN. However, it is only available in 33 countries, a list that doesn’t include Russia.

The same four censorship circumvention add-ons also appear to be available for other web browsers without being blocked by the browsers’ web stores. Censor Tracker, for instance, remains available for the Google Chrome web browser, and the Chrome Web Store page for the add-on works from Russian IP addresses. The same holds for Runet Censorship Bypass, VPN Planet, and FastProxy.

“In general, it’s hard to recall anyone else who has done something similar lately,” said Shakirov, the Russian open internet advocate. “For the last few months, Roskomnadzor (after the adoption of the law in Russia that prohibits the promotion of tools for bypassing blockings) has been sending such complaints about content to everyone.”