Russia bans VPNs, removes anonymity from chat apps

By Fran Roberts
Russia has banned VPNs, proxies and other technologies that allows users to access websites that are banned by the Russian internet watchdog, Roskomnadz...

Russia has banned VPNs, proxies and other technologies that allows users to access websites that are banned by the Russian internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor.

Under the new instructions, internet providers will have to block websites hosting these tools. Furthermore, the law will require search engines to remove references to blocked websites so citizens don't know what it is they are not allowed to see.

President Vladimir Putin has signed the law, which comes into effect on 1 November 2017, according to the government's website.

Any companies that fail to comply with the new rules can be fined up to one million roubles ($16,500).

The law had already been approved by the Duma, the lower house of parliament, and represents another major blow to an open internet.

Leonid Levin, Chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Information Policy and Technology, has said that the law is not targeted at “introducing new bans for law-abiding citizens.”

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The measure is ostensibly to curb extremist content but as Freedom House notes, “anti-extremism laws are widely used as a pretext to block political content, often without judicial oversight.”

Russian authorities in recent years have escalated efforts to prosecute internet users for online content considered extremist or insulting to religious believers.

No details have been released as to how Russia will enforce the new rules. To date, evidence shows that attempts to ban or block VPNs are rarely effective in the long term as VPN providers change server locations, IP address, and website domains to facilitate access.

The move comes as Russia’s neighbour China continues its crackdown on VPNs. On Saturday, Apple said it would remove VPN apps from its China App Store.

President Putin has also signed a law requiring chat apps to identify users from their phone numbers, which comes into effect from 1 January 2018.

Some have noted that both sets of measures will come into effect in the months leading up to Russian elections in March 2018 – perhaps as a way of discouraging opposition to President Putin.

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