Under Russia's New Internet Censorship Law Everyone Is A Potential Criminal

Experts say the new law is less about targeting VPNs than it is about allowing the Russian government to target anyone.

Over the weekend Russian leader Vladimir Putin signed a law that will further limit online freedoms inside the country.

Mikko Stig / AFP / Getty Images

The law has two parts. The first will come into effect starting on Nov. 1 and will will block access to sites that allow the use of virtual private networks, known as VPNs, across Russia. VPNs allow people to use the web anonymously.

The second part of the law will come into effect in 2018, and will require users of secure messaging apps (such as WhatsApp or Telegram) to register their numbers with Russian authorities.

Leonid Levin, head of the Duma's information policy committee, said the law was meant to only restrict access to "unlawful content," state-run news agency RIA reported. But the country's 2013 law criminalizing "gay propaganda," which the government similarly argued was narrowly targeted to protect children, has since been used to broadly persecute LGBT Russians.

International digital rights organizations have condemned the legislation.

Amnesty International called the law the "latest blow" in an assault on online freedom.

"The ban on VPNs takes this shameful campaign a whole step further," a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement. (In 2014, the Russian government passed a law that required foreign companies to store users' data within the country. LinkedIn was blocked last year for failing to comply.)

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been living in Russia since 2013, also criticized the law:

Banning the "unauthorized" use of basic internet security tools makes Russia both less safe and less free. This is a tragedy of policy.

Despite this, Amnesty International's Russian spokesperson Alexander Artemyev said there hasn't been much outcry inside Russia.

Speaking via WhatsApp from Moscow, he said that so far they had not seen "any initiative or counter-action" against the new law.

"There was a protest rally against the new assault on internet freedoms but the attendance was quite low for Moscow, around a few thousand people," he told BuzzFeed News.

He suggested that activists would be downloading VPNs ahead of the November ban, adding that because the law targeted ISPs (the providers) rather than individual users of VPNs, that could account for the muted response.

"So for those who would like to have their internet browsing protected it becomes only more difficult to obtain needed tech tools," Artemyev said, but "difficult doesn't mean impossible."

But Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that the law is designed to create an atmosphere of criminality.

Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty Images

"The idea is that everyone is always breaking the law, and then the government selectively decides when to enforce it," she told BuzzFeed News. "It’s about creating an atmosphere where the state can act as it pleases."

Many have already noted that the Russian government may have a tough time actually enforcing the amendments. But Galperin says this is exactly what the authorities want and misses the point of the legislation.

Fundamentally, she said, online campaigners or citizen journalists who were already speaking out against the state would not be deterred. Instead, ordinary Russians who were perhaps considering buying a private VPN to search the internet might not now do so — meaning normal citizens will no longer be able to get unbiased information about their government and its actions.

"This [law] will make it easier for the government to spy on everyday people," she said.

Russia has been looking to the Chinese government's attempts to limit access to the free web for a long time now.

Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Getty Images

Apple, and now Beijing Sinnet Technology, which operates Amazon's cloud computing and services there, have both recently complied with tough government rules blocking the use of software that allows users to get around China's infamous Great Firewall.

And Putin signaled his approval of Chinese actions back in April, stating the internet cannot be a place of "quasi-freedoms."

This latest move is a further sign of his intention to clamp down — but is also being seen as a sign of the Kremlin looking out for itself.

Andrei Soldatov, writing in the Moscow Times, notes the FSB (Federal Security Service) will be tasked with enforcing the ban, rather than the internet communications monitor Roskomnadzor.

"This time, it’s not some ordinary threat it is trying to root out, but a threat to 'national security,' which is the Kremlin’s euphemism for 'the stability of the present political regime,'" he writes.

But this being Russia, there are some *notable* exemptions. Members of the Duma will submit an amendment for Russian-occupied Crimea to be exempt, allowing users there to still access and use VPNs, according to Lenta.ru.