The regime of Russian leader Vladimir Putin has spent much of this year systematically undermining the right of the Russian people to freedom of expression online. This concerted policy will come to a head this Wednesday, when its new laws, which require VPNs to comply with the Russian State’s online censorship programme, comes into force across the country.
As we have previously, reported, earlier this year the Russian State Duma passed the new piece of legislation earlier this year and it was quickly signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. At the time, it was reported that the new law amounted to a blanket ban on all VPN services.
But in practice, the new law will require all companies which provide VPN services in Russia to block all websites on the blacklist of the Roskomnadzor, which is the Russian state communications watchdog.
VPNs will not comply with new law
Most of the major international VPN providers are not expected to comply with the law. Some, including Private Internet Access (PIA), has already confirmed this. PIA also removed all their servers from Russia last year after a number were seized without prior warning. It remains to be seen how the Russian state will try and sanction them as a result, but they can certainly expect to be added to the blacklist.
Commenting on the changes, Harold Li, vice president at ExpressVPN, told the Agence France Presse News Agency that the new law “essentially asks VPN services to help enforce Russia’s censorship regime.”
VPNs are central to online privacy, anonymity, and freedom of speech, so these restrictions represent an attack on digital rights,” he continued. “We hope and expect that most major VPN services will not bend to these new restrictions.”
Online rights activists have also been quick to condemn the new law. Eva Galperin, the Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which VPNComapre.co.uk proudly supports, said she believed the law would only be applied selectively.
It is expected that the Russian regime will use the new powers to target opposition activists ahead of next year’s Presidential Elections. Overseas companies and businesspeople based in Russia which use VPNs are unlikely to see their service affected.
Online Freedom in Russia disappearing
But it is another nail in the coffin of online freedom in Russia, which has been systematically eroded since the opposition made use of the internet to organise mass protests against Vladimir Putin following the last, highly-disputed, Presidential elections in Russia in 2011.
Since then, Russia has moved much closer towards the Chinese vision of internet sovereignty and has taken a number of steps to block sites that refuse to comply with its demands. Most recently, the encrypted online messaging service Telegram received a demand to hand over its encryption keys and was subsequently fined for refusing.
The professional social media site LinkedIn, which is one of the few mainstream social media services to comply with Chinese censorship and surveillance requirements, has also been banned in Russia.
Amnesty International has described the latest law as “a major blow to internet freedom”, while NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is currently residing under asylum in Russia, has bravely argued that the law “makes Russia both less safe and less free”.
It is unlikely that anything will change overnight when the new law comes into force this Wednesday. But as the Presidential Election, which is scheduled to be held next March, draws closer, it is likely that more sites will be blocked and more opposition activists detained.
It is at least encouraging that the main VPNs will not be bullied into submission by the Russian authorities and will continue to make their services available for Russian people brave enough to speak out against the oppressive regime which continues to erode their freedoms.