Russia, China bids to tighten control over the internet
A big blow in the face of activists, journalists, but also dark web participants. Russia and China approach to "iron curtain" the internet.
Critics have blamed Russia of attempting to neuter the internet as a political threat after the government launched a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs).
VPN services allow internet users to appear as if they are in a different country to the one in which they are physically located, which helps with anonymity and also enables users to access sites blacklisted in particular countries.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, signed a law on Sunday to impose tougher restrictions on VPN providers, forcing them to comply with Russia’s list of blacklisted sites, in what was allegedly a move to help fight extremism.
The same law additionally calls for messaging apps to be linked to cellphone numbers, making it easier to identify users.
“I think the regulation is a bit outdated and very difficult to implement,” said Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web:The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. “But this law is still very dangerous, because it means all the internet service providers will be in violation, and this will be a good tool with which to put pressure on them.”
Russia’s internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, maintains a list of thousands of blacklisted websites.
VPN provider Private Internet Access removed its servers from Russia last year, after some were seized by the government, said it would not comply with any such order.
“The newly signed law will likely be used to compel VPNs to go against their ethos and censor what the Russian government wants,” Private Internet Access said in a blog post.
China has begun a crackdown on VPN services in recent months. Nevertheless, the Russian initiative is different to the Chinese law in that it does not ban VPN products.
Soldatov said that the legislation would be unlikely to convince international VPN providers to comply, and said the Tor software, which allows anonymous browsing, was “the elephant in the room” and would be very difficult to control.
He said to really ensure Russians were unable to access blacklisted sites, the government would have to implement a much more refined filtering system.
Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who exposed US government surveillance programmes and now lives in Russia, criticised the regulation.
“Banning the ‘unauthorized’ use of basic internet security tools makes Russia both less safe and less free. This is a tragedy of policy,” Snowden tweeted. He added:
Rights groups also criticised the move.
“Anonymity protects the rights of internet users and freedom of expression online,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Russia researcher at the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch. “These laws negatively affect the ability of tens of millions of Russians to freely access and exchange information online.”
Amnesty International called it the latest step in a “shameful campaign” against the internet in Russia, and compared the legislation to Chinese bans on VPNs.
In July it was reported that the Chinese government had ordered the country’s three telecoms companies to block access to VPNs completely by February next year. Last weekend, two VPN providers said Apple had told them it was removing their apps from its app store in China, drawing criticism from VPN service providers, who accuse the US tech giant of bowing to pressure from Beijing.
In a statement on Sunday, Apple confirmed it will remove apps that do not comply with the Chinese law from its China App Store, including services based outside the country.