The past few days haven’t been great for online freedom. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law Saturday banning the use of tools that protect people’s identity online, while Apple was criticized for kowtowing to the Chinese government by removing virtual private network (VPN) apps from its China Apple Store — a move described by several critics as a violation of human rights.
The new Russian law, which goes into effect Nov. 1, is nominally designed to prevent access to illegal content online, such as extremist material, by banning VPNs — which allow users to mask their location and access websites that have been blocked in particular countries. Critics note the scope of what is deemed illegal content in Russia has grown significantly during Putin’s reign. In May a Russian vlogger was found guilty of inciting hatred for publishing a video of him playing Pokemon Go in a church.
Unlike China, Russia still allows access to sites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, but experts worry that this new law is a sign of a growing Kremlin crackdown on opposition voices, ahead of a March 2018 election when Putin is expected to seek — and win — a third term. In March, Putin signalled where things may be heading when he defended China’s internet censorship policy.
In China — where the government’s infamous “Great Firewall” blocks access to foreign sites — Apple took the decision to pull dozens of VPN apps from its Chinese App Store in order to comply with new regulations set by the government in January. “Earlier this year China’s (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government,” an Apple spokesperson told VICE News. “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.”
Apple has been widely criticized by the developers of the apps removed from sale. Referencing a recent comment by Apple CEO Tim Cook where he said “accessibility is a human right,” developer Golden Frog stated: “If Apple views accessibility as a human right, we would hope Apple will likewise recognize internet access as a human right… and would choose human rights over profits.”