Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a controversial new internet censorship law following a successful Chinese crackdown on tools used to access censored sites. According to Engadget, the new Russian law will ban virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies, which are used to access banned and censored websites, as well as requiring internet service providers to prohibit access to sites hosting them. According to the Putin government, the law is intended to crack down on “extremist content,” but free speech experts say that this claim is just a pretext to prevent Russians from viewing content critical of Putin, or communicating outside of government oversight.
The new Russian censorship laws follow a successful crackdown by the Chinese government on VPNs and proxies: according to TechCrunch, as part of their crackdown, China was able to pressure Apple into removing all major VPN apps from its Chinese app store. This is the first time that China has won a battle to pressure a major tech company into censoring software which allowed citizens to get past their restrictive, censored version of the internet; the reasoning they provided to app developers was that the apps “include content that is illegal in China.”
Apple stock has been falling significantly in China over the past year, which many believe may have forced their hand in capitulating to the demand.
In addition to the new censorship law, Putin also signed a law requiring that chat applications identify users through their phone numbers, coming into effect after January 1, 2018. Many chat applications, including Facebook Messenger, already encourage users to attach their phone number to their account, but the new law will make it mandatory – making users much easier to identify. That law also includes a provision that requires chat operators, like Facebook, to limit a user’s access if they are spreading illegal material. On the surface, that’s not an unreasonable provision: many developed nations have similar laws to combat the spread of material such as child pornography. But, as the Washington Post notes, Putin has a habit of outlawing anything he doesn’t like, such as pictures of himself portrayed as a gay clown.
Incidentally, that picture was outlawed by placing it on Russia’s list of things considered “extremism” which circles back to the first new law, and others introduced beginning with Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2013; even “liking” a post considered extremism can carry a prison sentence of up to a year.
Engadget also notes that the timing of the new laws is likely no coincidence: Putin is up for reelection in March, and the new laws seem tailor-made to prevent Russian citizens from seeing any media which might cause them to question Putin’s authority. They are also perfectly designed to discourage and crack down on protests – many protests in other parts of the world, including America, are made possible by social media. Protests are, of course, also illegal in Russia – providing that the protesters don’t have permission of authority, which isn’t forthcoming for anti-Putin protests – and also carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.
[Featured Image by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images]