- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2017

Russian lawmakers on Friday unanimously approved the first reading of legislation outlawing virtual private network (VPN) services and other technologies that let internet users bypass Moscow’s ever-expanding blacklist of banned websites.

Lawmakers in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Federal Assembly, voted 363-0 on Friday in favor of adopting amendments regulating VPN services, censorship circumvention software and other so-called “anonymizers,” regional media reported afterwards.

The legislation would ban the use of any software that enables access to digital content otherwise barred by Moscow’s censors if adopted, according to Meduza, an English-language news site devoted to Russian affairs.

“The bill’s sponsors would give the owners of VPN networks and internet anonymizers access to Russia’s registry of blocked online resources, so they could cut access to these websites. Any Internet circumvention tools that refuse to block access to banned resources would themselves be blocked,” Meduza explained.

Violators would be subject to fines ranging from 5,000 to 700,000 rubles — about a maximum of $11,000 — Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported Friday.

While Moscow already maintains a firm grasp on Russia’s withering digital freedoms, Duma deputies have said system currently in place for restricting internet access is “not effective enough,” Meduza reported.

Typically Russia’s internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, provides the nation’s internet service providers (ISPs) with a list of banned websites to block. Even when ISPs heed the regulator’s request, however, customers can circumvent blacklists by using VPN services or specialized software like the Tor browser to route their internet traffic out of Russia, effectively bypassing the regional firewall.

“The Russian authorities censor a wide range of topics online, most often under the pretext of anti-extremism measures,” Freedom House wrote in its 2016 “Freedom of the Net” report. More recently, Roskomnadzor banned Google’s Russian portal, Google.ru, for about three hours Thursday for linking to a banned gambling website.

The Russian Security Council began working on the amendments as far back as April and the bill was officially introduced in the Duma on June 8. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the former KGB, had reportedly urged Duma members to “accelerate” passing the new restrictions, Russia’s RBC reported Friday.

Russian search engine Yanex and the nation’s internet ombudsman, Dmitry Marinichev, have both previously criticized the proposal, Novaya Gazeta reported.

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