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Vlad the blockader: Russia's anti-VPN law comes into effect

All the news that's fit to read – as decided by President Putin

A Russian law that bans the use or provision of virtual private networks (VPNs) will come into effect Wednesday.

The legislation will require ISPs to block websites that offer VPNs and similar proxy services that are used by millions of Russians to circumvent state-imposed internet censorship.

It was signed by President Vladimir Putin on July 29 and was justified as a necessary measure to prevent the spread of extremism online. Its real impact, however, will be to make it much harder for ordinary Russians to access websites ISPs are instructed to block connections to by Russian regulator Roskomnadzor, aka the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media.

Among those banned websites are Wikipedia – placed on the list on the pretext that it contained information about taking drugs – and numerous pornographic websites, as well as some genuinely extremist outlets such as The Daily Stormer.

But the bigger issue and concern are short-term bans that have been repeatedly placed on news websites when they report on topics that the Russian government considers sensitive.

For example, during Russia's annexation of Crimea – an action that led to international condemnation and the imposition of sanctions – several Russian publications that criticized the move found themselves blacklisted.

The regulator has also shut down significant online resources on the basis on one small issue: such as when it removed access to GitHub because some notes appeared somewhere on the sprawling service that outlined suicide methods (GitHub now publishes Russian government takedown requests). Roskomnadzor also cut off access to Amazon Web Services for several hours because it decided it didn’t like a poker app hosted somewhere on its systems.

It gets worse

The law is just one part of a concerted effort by the Russian government to restrict access to information online. While Russia does not appear to be going the same route as China – which has a country wide, constantly maintained censorship apparatus, known as the Great Firewall of China – it is clearly following its lead.

At the same time as Putin signed the VPN legislation, he signed another that will come into effect in January. That law, like a similar one passed by the Chinese government earlier this year, will require operators of messaging services to verify their users' identities through phone numbers. And it will require operators to introduce systems to cut off any users that are deemed by the Russian government to be spreading illegal content.

At the same time, Russia is using its sway at the United Nations to push a much more restrictive approach to the internet: something that many Western governments fear will lead to a gradual shutting down of the open internet.

As with China, Russia constantly points to the threat of extremism and terrorism as reasons for introducing greater controls, but both countries have started expanding that control to cover social issues.

China has decided it should block any information that does not reflect the country's "core socialist values" – something that swiftly led to it cutting off access to Japanese animations and South Korean soap operas as well as banning Justin Bieber from performing in the country due to his "bad behavior."

And, of course, that censorship is frequently used to shut down dissenting voices, especially those that the political establishment fear pose a threat to them. The most stark, and depressing, recent example came when China deleted, in real time, images of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo as he was dying in a government-controlled hospital of liver cancer.

Russia's internet crackdowns will also come into force just months ahead of a March 2018 election in which Vladimir Putin will run for a new six-year term. You can expect to see the new laws vigorously imposed against anyone challenging Putin's claim to perpetual power. ®

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