Week in Review: November 3, 2017

by Dan Bateyko

Russia rolls out new VPN law, Yandex and Google comply

On November 1, a Russian law restricting the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and “anonymizers” came into effect. According to a report in The Moscow Times, the law requires VPN providers to register with Roskomnadzor, the federal body responsible for media, and for Internet companies to block access to websites included on the Roskomnadzor’s blacklist.

The legislation, signed into law in July, has drawn criticism from civil society organizations, journalists, and business leaders. Amnesty International expressed concern that the VPN law “is the latest blow in an assault on online freedom which has seen critical sites blocked and social media users prosecuted solely for what they post online, under vaguely written anti-extremism legislation.” Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and security services expert, argued in an op-ed piece that the law intends “to make it impossible to access blocked websites using VPNs, which helps [sic] users hide their identity online, and to make it possible for the Russian secret services to immediately identify users on instant messengers.”

A letter from the Association of European Businesses to the Russian Minister of Communications earlier this year underscored how VPNs are used by international companies in Russia as a means of protecting data while doing business. According to a BBC report, while corporate VPNs will be exempt from the law, regulators have yet to define the line between corporate and private VPN use.

Users have also reported that Yandex and Google have begun complying with the legislation, which requires search engines to remove results that lead users to banned content. The English-language Russian news website Meduza reports that “Yandex and Google no longer return search results for the torrent trackers rutracker.org and nnm-club.me and the opposition political website Grani.ru. Users can reportedly circumvent Yandex’s censorship by accessing the website in “incognito mode,” without logging into their Yandex accounts."

Want to see more about the Russian media?   Check out our Russian media dashboard monitoring live Russian Wikipedia edits, new Global Voices articles, and Russian news topics here.

Springer Nature publishing company blocks access to articles in China

Springer Nature, the German academic publisher behind journals such as "Nature" and "Scientific American", blocked at least 1,000 articles in China in compliance with “local distribution laws.”

Speaking on the incident, Springer Nature stated that  “this action is deeply regrettable but has been taken to prevent a much greater impact on our customers and authors and is in compliance with our published policy … This is not editorial censorship and does not affect the content we publish or make accessible elsewhere in the world.”

However, The Associated Press reports that “the blocked articles related to topics such as Taiwan, the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the status of Tibet, which are considered sensitive by the Communist Party, according to a survey by The Associated Press.” Springer Nature has yet to make public which exact articles have been blocked.

Earlier this year, LexisNexus, a news database provider, withdrew two of its products at the behest of China. Cambridge University Press blocked access to hundreds of articles relating to similar topics  in the country, later reversing the decision “so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded.”

Twitter Bans Russia Today, Sputnik from advertising on their platform

In an official announcement last Thursday, Twitter banned Russian media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from advertising, based on the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of their aid in interfering in last year’s U.S. election.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) voiced measured concern over the decision, writing in their Deeplinks blog that the ban relaxed norms of private censorship and lead to pressure on anonymous speech. The EFF went on to cite the the Manilla Principles for promoting freedom of expression concerning intermediary liability, writing that  “under those principles, public and governmental pressure should not force Twitter to restrict content; only a court order should be able to do that. Yet that’s exactly what happened here, with no apparent right of appeal.”

Twitter will be donating the funds earned from RTs global advertising towards external research into “the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections, including use of malicious automation and misinformation, with an initial focus on elections and automation."

See Internet Monitor’s dashboard on online company corporate responsibility here .