Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has ratcheted up its war against online freedoms another notch by passing a decree which means that all users of online messaging apps must be identifiable.
Russian bans anonymity on messaging services
The new decree means that whenever anyone in Russia signs up for a messaging app, they will be required to verify their registration data through their mobile phone operator. It will come into force in six months’ time.
The onus of this new regulation will fall heavily on Russia’s mobile phone operators. They will be required to keep records of every messaging app used by their customers. And when the app in question sends them a verification request, they will have just twenty minutes to respond with the relevant information.
If someone switches mobile provider, they will be required to go through this entire verification process again for each app. But the onus on this re-verification process lies with the messaging app providers.
Alexander Zharov, the head of head of media regulator Roskomnadzor, has strongly defended the new decree. Speaking to Russian news outlet Izvestia, he said banning anonymity was “a necessary step toward creating a safe communication environment for citizens and for the state as a whole”.
It is a typical response from a Putin official, none of whom are shy about invoking national security as a justification for removing individual rights. But his reference to the ‘state as a whole’ is rather revealing as this clearly implies that protecting the Putin regime and exposing opposition is a big motivating factor.
Mobile operators already have necessary databases
You might expect that Russian mobile operators would be angry at the burdensome and bureaucratic new responsibility that is being foisted upon them, but in fact, their response has been pretty sanguine.
When questioned about the new decree, Russian network provider MTS admitted that they would need to develop some new technical improvements but claimed that the necessary databases were already in place.
Some Russian internet users may be surprised to learn that their mobile operator is already keeping detailed databases on which messenger apps they are using and perhaps question what other related data they already hold.
But at a time when the Putin regime is cracking down hard on any form of online freedom in an effort to ensure their continued grip on power, others will probably have already assumed as much.
It is not yet clear how the messaging services themselves will respond to the new requirements. Russian language services are likely to have little choice but to comply if they want to remain operational, but international ones are under no such obligations.
The likes of Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp have never before shown any inclination to want to compromise user anonymity at the request of authoritarian regimes like the one in Russia.
If that remains the case, then it seems quite possible that Russian authorities will be left with the choice between turning a blind eye or trying to block these mammoth online services across their entire country. We saw with their recent farcical attempts to ban Telegram how effective this approach can be.
How to get around the new ban
With six months until the ban comes into force, many Russians, especially those who are active opponents of the Putin regime will be fishing around for ways to get around it.
One question which has been answered satisfactorily yet is how the new decree will be enforced on users of overseas sim cards. The Russian authorities will not be able to force mobile operators outside Russia to comply, yet their sim cards will still work inside the country.
That means those visiting the country will not fall victim to the new rules, but also offers an obvious way around them for those Russians who want to remain anonymous online.
Another tool which might be easier to obtain in Russia than an overseas sim card is a VPN. By connecting to a VPN server outside Russia, users will be able to circumvent any ban on the anonymous use of messengers and continue to communicate as usual.
Russia has officially banned the use of VPNs in the country, but almost all still remain available. As we saw with the ban on Telegram, many Russians quickly turn to a VPN when online crackdowns are enforced.
Russian internet users should be aware that there are consequences if they are caught using a VPN in Russia so it is advisable to pick a reputable provider with strong encryption and privacy protections such as ExpressVPN or IPVanish.
To find out more about the best VPN to use in Russia, the best place to start is our article on the Best VPN for Russia: Our Top 5 Picks.