Russia and China are banning the use of virtual private networks, as their governments assert ever greater control over what citizens can see online.
In Russia, the State Duma – the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia (legislature) – unanimously adopted the first reading of new legislation that would ban the use of VPNs as well as online anonymizers like the Tor browser if they don't block access to a government-run list of websites.
That list of websites will include any sites that provide software that can circumvent censorship. And, most insidiously, 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.
The legislation was approved in record time after the director of the FSB intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov, gave an hour-long talk to Duma deputies in a closed meeting, in which he said how important it was that the law was passed and passed quickly. Attendees were told not to report that the meeting even took place, apparently.
In a note explaining the law, Duma deputies argue that the law is necessary because the existing censorship apparatus in place is "not effective enough."
A second law that also passed its first reading this month will require mobile phone operators to:
- Identify specific users
- Block messages if requested to do so by the state
- Allow the authorities to send their own messages to all users
Any companies that fail to comply with the rules can be fined up to one million rubles ($16,500).
Meanwhile, China has started enforcing its rules, approved in January, that do pretty much the same thing.
The Chinese government requires all VPN services to apply for a license, and as part of the license requirements, they are expected to block access to websites and services the Chinese government doesn't approve of.
Now the government has "requested" that the country's three mobile operators block the use of VPN apps on their networks, and have set a hard deadline of February 1 next year. Chinese users in their millions use VPNs as a way of bypassing widespread online censorship that blocks services such as Facebook and Twitter as well as many Western news websites.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said back in January that the VPN and cloud computing market was undergoing "disorderly development," and as such there was an "urgent need for regulation norms."
That followed a largely ineffective effort to kill off VPNs back in 2015. But this time the government seems more determined to enforce censorship.
Earlier this month two VPN services – Green VPN and Haibei VPN – said they were shutting down their services in mainland China, having received a "notice from regulatory departments."
The government also recently passed new rules that will censor information that does not reflect "core socialist values" – in effect banning discussion on topics such as drugs and homosexuality. Previously, Chinese internet users had grown used to a censored version of the internet built largely around protecting the ruling party by limiting political debate.
It's unclear whether the same rules will apply to the political elite, however. The architect of China's Great Firewall himself used one publicly in a presentation last year when he found himself blocked by his own creation. ®