It’s been a gloomy week for internet freedom.
On July 29 Russian president Vladimir Putin formally signed a law (link in Russian) that prohibits the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other internet proxy services. The law was published on July 30, and will be implemented from November 1.
The law is yet another sign of Putin’s growing control over internet access, and dovetails with a similar, but deeper, crackdown in China. The services the countries are barring allow users anonymity while browsing online or enable access to content that’s restricted by geography.
In January, China’s Ministry Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the government branch that oversees internet policy, published a document that pointed to a deeper crackdown on VPN access from within China. The notice suggested that while VPN use for legitimate businesses will be tolerated, telcos must proactively monitor VPN usage. The notice’s circulation months before this year’s 19th Party Congress, a major political event that will ring in major leadership transitions, was a clear sign that VPN access for ordinary individuals would grow less reliable.
That warning has steadily came to fruition, as several VPNs suddenly ceased operating as summer began. It culminated most recently over the weekend, when Apple removed all of its VPN and proxy service apps from its Chinese app store, citing government pressure (paywall).
Russia is a bit of a different case. To date, the country’s government has not exerted control over the internet to the degree that China’s has. Facebook, Google, Apple services, and foreign media sites remain accessible there, while in China they’re completely blocked. But it seems to be moving in a similar direction.
In 2014 the Kremlin passed a law requiring all foreign internet companies to store data in Russian user data within Russia’s borders. While it has not been enforced across all companies, LinkedIn was blocked in late 2016 for not complying with the policy. Twitter came under fire for the same reason in 2017, along with a bevvy of smaller services, including, China’s WeChat.
Meanwhile, authorities have punished and at times jailed social media users for content posted online. Most recently, a blogger was nearly sent to prison after publishing a YouTube video of himself playing Pokémon Go in a church.
In April, Putin made a public nod of approval towards China’s internet policy, adding that “callous quasi-freedom on the internet does not exist anywhere anymore.”
Banning access to VPNs won’t have the same effect in Russia as it will in China because Russia’s internet is comparatively more open. Since fewer global-facing sites there are blocked outright, the ban, if enforced, will primarily affect consumers who use VPNs and proxy services to disguise their online footprint. But given Putin’s escalating control over the internet, that’s something more and more Russians will want to do.