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Russia Passes Bill Banning Tor, VPNs

The Russian Federation Council has approved a bill that would outlaw the use of virtual private networks, the Tor network, anonymous mobile messaging services and internet proxy services in general.

The move follows the unanimous passage of the measure by the lower parliament, the State Duma, on Friday. The bill now goes to President Vladimir Putin to be signed into the law.

Over the weekend, privacy-advocate protests erupted across Moscow, according to reports.

The bill requires ISPs to block any websites that allow the use of VPN services. Lawmakers said that the move was prompted by concerns about the spread of terrorist-related materials; others said that the crackdown is a move to enforce censorship and limit dissent and political opposition.

Roskomnadzor, the Russian state’s internet watchdog, officially bans certain kinds of content, like child pornography, illicit drug information and how-tos on suicide. It also bans a fourth, less well-defined bucket of content that is deemed “explicit”, which includes terrorist propaganda but also other types of information that the state considers dangerous.

There are also bans in place on global services that don’t fall into any of these categories. For example, Russia has recently blocked LinkedIn, Wikipedia and other popular international websites and banned their associated apps, about 1,200 in total, according to NordVPN, a privacy-focused VPN provider that doesn’t keep user logs and has thousands of Russian users, many of whom have been sending messages of concern, it said. It added that in their place, Russia is launching its own websites, such as the Sputnik news service, known to produce false news.

However, this is not internet censorship that uses the same bullet-proof prowess of China’s famed Great Firewall. Typically, when banned content is uncovered, Roskomnadzor sends a notice to the website host, which is expected to notify the owners of the problematic website that it will be shut down if the prohibited content is not removed. If the site doesn’t comply, ISPs are required to block the webpage—a situation which Roskomnadzor enforces with manual checks.

If the content is deemed “extremist,” the site is blocked without notice.

There are, however, plenty of exceptions to the effort, including a prohibition on banning Google, even if search results include banned content. And, Russia’s famed cadre of underground hackers are unlikely to be phased by the state’s efforts. Also, VPNs are often used by Russians to access blocked content being hosted outside of the country and the global web, including thousands of websites for political dissent, according to NordVPN.

Opponents say banning VPNs, Tor and mobile messaging is thus a blatant move to track and control activists and dissenters. They warn that it is an example of totalitarian creep, given that Russian ISPs also are required to store six months of metadata, while global companies like Twitter and Facebook are required to store Russian user data on Russian servers, so the government can have access to it if needed. Apple and Google have also been asked to remove blocked apps (like LinkedIn) from their app stores in Russia.

"NordVPN stands for freedom of speech and free access to the internet, and we don’t agree with internet censorship by any government,” NordVPN CMO Marty Kamden told Infosecurity. “Recent moves by China and Russia to outlaw VPNs is indeed very worrying, as VPNs represent the only window to the world in countries with authoritarian governments, and can save lives of political activists by providing them with anonymity.”

He added, “As with China, it’s not yet clear how the Russian government is going to implement the ban from the technical point of view. However, we at NordVPN will do everything within our power to enable our users to continue enjoying the internet freedom.”

The legislation would take effect on January 1, 2018 if signed by Putin.

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