July 24, 2017 – Russia’s parliamentarians have given final approval to two laws intended to ban software that bypasses online censorship and tighten government control of search engines and messaging services. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) thinks they certify the death of a free Internet in Russia.
The two laws marking a turning-point in Russian Internet censorship were among the torrent of bills that legislators approved in a rush on July 21, the last day of the parliamentary session before the summer break.
The first law aims to plug the gaps in Russia’s Internet censorship by obliging services that circumvent website blocking – such as VPNs, proxy servers or the Tor network – to block websites that are banned in Russia. Those that do not comply will be rendered inaccessible in Russia.
This law also requires search engines to remove all references to sites that are blocked in Russia.
The second law will require the identification of users of messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram by means to their telephone numbers and will allow the authorities to block certain subscribers or messages.
“The free Internet has just hours to live in Russia,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “As we feared, the Duma has decided to step up censorship and surveillance of Internet users. We again condemn this escalation in draconian legislation, which tramples on the rights of Russian citizens and threatens the digital sector.”
The approval of these laws by the upper chamber and their promulgation by President Vladimir Putin are formalities. The anti-VPN law should take effect on November 1, the law on messaging services on January 1. Their implementation nonetheless faces major technical challenges.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.