Russia follows China in tightening internet restrictions, raising fresh censorship concerns

Key Points
  • Russia passes law banning software that allows users to view internet sites barred in the country anonymously
  • The bill, signed by President Vladimir Putin, prohibits virtual private networks (VPNs) and other technologies that anonymize users
  • Human rights groups have condemned Russia for infringing on civil liberties, who accuse it of broadening the scope of banned websites to censor criticism of the government

Russia has passed a law banning software that allows users to view internet sites barred in the country anonymously.

President Vladimir Putin signed the bill prohibiting virtual private networks (VPNs) and other technologies that anonymize users, according to the government's website on Sunday.

The flag of Russia.
agustavop | iStock/360 | Getty Images

The law, which was approved by the Duma (Russian parliament) earlier this month, will come into effect on November 1.

Leonid Levin, the head of the Duma's information policy committee, said that the law signed by President Putin was meant to prevent access to "unlawful content" rather than restrict it from law-abiding citizens, according to Russian state news agency RIA.

He told RIA that the law did not "introduce any new restrictions and especially no censorship."

"My colleagues only included the restriction of access to information that is already forbidden by law or a court decision," he said earlier this month.

Human rights group accuse Russia of censorship

Various websites are banned under Russia's internet restriction and child protection rules. A Federal blacklist introduced in 2012 to block sites that contained materials advocating drug abuse, suicide and child pornography. It has since been relaxed to include material that advocates "extremist" content.

Bill Hinton | Getty Images

But the Russian state has been condemned for infringing on civil liberties by human rights groups and advocates, which accuse it of broadening the scope of banned material to censor criticism of the government.

"VPNs can help people freely access the Internet without their browsing being observed by their Internet provider," Jim Killock, executive director of the U.K. digital rights campaign Open Rights Group, told CNBC via email.

"People can also use them to access censored and blocked content. Laws that criminalize the use of privacy-enhancing technologies like VPNs are incredibly dangerous and will restrict rights to privacy, free expression and access to information."

China's censorship problem

Russia's VPN ban follows the news that Apple had removed most major VPN apps from its app store in China, in order to comply with a law passed earlier this year.

China clamps down on the use of VPNs

"Earlier this year China's MIIT (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government," the tech giant said in a statement.

"We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations. These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business."

In a blog post, ExpressVPN, which saw its app removed in the apparent clampdown, said: "We're disappointed in this development, as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China's censorship efforts. ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties."