Russia bans VPNs to block “unlawful” side of the Internet

Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia

After threatening to shut down end-to-end encrypted messaging service Telegram, Russia is now moving to ban virtual private network (VPN) applications designed to offer unrestricted, anonymous access to the Internet.

President Vladimir Putin last week signed a law that bans not just VPNs, but any application designed to enable people to access the Internet anonymously, Reuters reports.

A virtual private network enables a secure, encrypted connection to the Internet. It can be envisioned like a tunnel between the user’s computer and a server operated by the VPN service operator.

VPNs are largely used to securely access a corporate intranet or other corporate resources while working remotely. However, much demand also comes from individual users looking to secure their wireless transactions, or to circumvent geo-restrictions and censorship. VPNs are also broadly used around the globe by users who purely wish to safeguard their personal identity.

The new legislation has gotten a green light from the lower house parliament and will go into effect November 1. Leonid Levin, Head of Information Policy Committee, told Russia’s RIA news agency that the law is meant to block access to “unlawful content,” not to impose restrictions on law-abiding citizens. There is no mentioning of what this “unlawful” content is.

China has set in place a nearly-identical law, prompting vendors to stop selling their VPN apps in the country. iPhone maker Apple Inc. has been forced to pull all VPN apps from its App Store in China to comply with the new legislation.

Both Russia and China are ramping up efforts to ban certain parts of the Internet as the two countries are gearing up for new elections and political reform, respectively.

Two weeks ago, China disrupted WhatsApp and Signal, two end-to-end encrypted messaging services, preventing users from sending images, videos and voice recordings to (reportedly) hamper the propaganda around recently-deceased activist Liu Xiaobo.

And Russia recently struck a deal with messaging service Telegram – after threatening to block it in the country – to enable the government to have conversations decrypted on demand if it believes the information is vital to national security.

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