How VPN Restrictions Imposed by China, Russia Impact Internet Freedom

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How VPN Restrictions Imposed by China, Russia Impact Internet Freedom

Privacy on the internet will be harder than ever to maintain in China and Russia after the two nations severely restricted the use of virtual private networks within their borders. China has instituted regulations that require all VPN apps used within its borders to be registered with the government. Russia went even further in July when it announced a ban on the use of VPNs and other anonymizing technology starting Nov. 1. These countries argue that the rules are aimed at rooting out lawlessness on the internet. But the bans also impact international trade, as Apple has been forced to remove VPN apps that violate China's VPN registration requirement from its App Store. This slide show covers the implications of the VPN bans around the world.

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China Requires VPN Registrations, Licenses

Earlier this year, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that VPN developers would be required to obtain a license from the government before they could continue offering their apps. It’s unknown what the Chinese government does to evaluate and approve apps, but critics say the process is bad for privacy and digital rights.

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China Says Unregulated VPNs Are a Threat

The Chinese government has long held that network anonymizers and VPNs are not good for the country because they allow what it considers “lawless elements” to launch attacks against the governments. Dissenters say the move is yet another tool the government is using to suppress protest and free speech. The government contends that it is respecting digital rights by requiring VPN registration, not imposing an outright ban.

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Russia Imposes an Outright VPN Ban

Russia has taken a different tack. On July 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that bans the use of VPNs and other anonymizers from the country. The law was passed by the Russian parliament earlier in July and will take effect Nov. 1.

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Russia Claims VPNs Promote ‘Unlawful Content’

In statements about the ban, the Russian government and Putin argued that VPNs allow access to “unlawful content.” The president said VPNs allow Russians to access “extremist” content, including violent and pornographic sites. By blocking VPNs, Russia believes it can ensure citizens are accessing only lawful sites.

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The Privacy Implications Are Huge

While Russia and China argue that what they’re doing is best for their citizens, the moves go a long way toward eliminating internet privacy and enabling web content censorship. Global privacy advocates have decried the moves, saying they could ultimately make the internet and the world a more dangerous place.

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Apple Scrubs Its App Store of Offending VPNs

Apple, the world’s largest tech company, was required to remove dozens of allegedly offending VPNs from its online App Store in China. The affected apps were scrubbed from the marketplace after they failed to obtain proper licensing from the Chinese government. However, those apps are still available in Apple’s other App Stores around the world.

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VPN App Makers Respond to Apple’s Move

Not surprisingly, VPN app makers have railed against Apple’s decision. Star VPN called it a “dangerous precedent” and suggested that other countries might soon follow China’s actions now that Apple has removed the offending VPNs. Other VPN makers said Apple has hurt “freedom fighters” trying to battle censorship and restrictions under political protest.

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Apple Says It Had to Comply With Chinese Law

Apple was rather matter-of-fact when it responded to its critics. The company reiterated the Chinese VPN chain of events and essentially said it had no other option but to comply with the law and remove the offending VPN apps. Apple didn’t respond to calls for the company to stand up to the Chinese government.

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Apple, Other Companies Must Make Hard Choices

China is a critically important market for Apple, but the company’s revenue is dropping in the country. Apple apparently has to comply with Chinese regulations so it can continue doing business in China. However, some critics on Twitter have said they might boycott Apple products and others have said the decision could have negative long-term impacts on the company’s Chinese division.

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VPN Use Isn't Threatened Only in China, Russia

It's quite possible that other repressive governments could follow the examples of China and Russia by instituting their own VPN bans. It remains to be seen how Russian and Chinese citizens will react to the ban. Will they find other ways to maintain some privacy on the web without VPNs? Will other companies follow Apple's example and stop selling products that violate China's internet regulations? The future is uncertain, but if the critics are right, the internet today is a little less free than it was just a month ago.

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