In 2021, online freedom, and more specifically, lack thereof, is still a relevant topic and reality in some countries. Russia is one of them, and the situation is not new. In fact, it has been happening for almost a decade and continues to be an ongoing issue. It may be surprising for many in this day and age of digitalization, but what seems like a dream for some is a reality for others. So, why is this occurring?
Not only are Russian people deprived of online accessibility, but online freedom in Russia is decreasing year by year. There is a primary reason why this is happening: Russian authorities want to have complete control over online activities from people. This goes hand in hand with isolation from the internet. As a result, people are left in the dark, unable to exercise fundamental human rights – those of freedom of expression and access to information. Understandably, such violations are not received well by the public.
In order to better understand why and how this is happening in 2021, it is crucial to look at the situation in Russia lately and how citizens are fighting to combat and overcome this obstacle.
Old and new laws and regulations to block online freedom
Russia is one of the countries where internet censorship and lack of online freedom have always existed. Apart from a brief period from the mid-90s and 2012 where there weren’t so many laws and regulations regarding the use of the internet, Russian citizens barely had the opportunity to enjoy the freedom in the online environment that every person deserves to have. In 2012, things changed again when president Putin was elected again.
More recently, from 2017, more specifically, new laws have been enforced in Russia that give the government ultimate power over online freedom. These laws and regulations severely restrict online activity and how to use the internet in Russia and are as follows:
- A law that bans the use of VPN services and services that provide access to certain websites or platforms;
- A law that identifies users of messaging and communication applications;
- The Sovereign internet law from 2019;
- A law on pre-installed domestic software on various digital devices in an attempt for Russian IT companies to compete with foreign ones and become independent.
The laws mentioned above and regulations from 2017 to 2019 are examples of how the Russian government tries to limit the use of the internet and increase control over online freedom. And, unfortunately, things have not changed. For this reason, Russian citizens are trying to fight back by attending rallies like the Free Internet one in 2019.
VPN services could be a loophole for citizens
As mentioned above, in 2017, a law aimed to restrict VPN and services that allow individuals to access banned websites was enforced. This has limited online activity even more, and it has strengthened the control over the use of the internet, making Russians react with rallies and protests. The Free Internet rally mentioned earlier was a response to this VPN ban when Russia enforced a bill for routing internet traffic through local servers.
This being said, while access has been blocked to various VPN services, there still are some that can be used by citizens. This represents the light at the end of the tunnel for Russian citizens. Even if the situation with the lack of online freedom in Russia is far from being solved, individuals can use some VPN services to access websites and platforms, which normally shouldn’t be prohibited. Therefore, there is a loophole for Russian citizens, as they can use VPNs to access restricted websites, VPNs that are not among the ones banned by Russian law.
The “Sovereign internet” law
Used under the pretense of protecting Russia from cyber threats that risk the security, integrity, and sustainability of the Russian segment of the internet, the “sovereign internet” law, was enforced in May 2019. The fact is that with this law, the state has more control and influence on the country’s internet infrastructure and allows to expand the lack of freedom on online activity.
Another aspect included in this law forces internet service providers to use a domain name system or DNS that is nationally recognized. This means that such a national DNS in Russia that supports the translation of an URL into an IP address helps Russian authorities manipulate and change the website address to prevent people from accessing the link they desire. The consequences of this action are major. Individuals trying to access a particular website are banned from using it, given that authorities have the power of substituting the website address with the wrong or fake one or with no actual address.
Why is lack of online freedom a reality today?
In highly restrictive countries like China and Russia, which are regarded as autocracy, the need for power drives unethical actions. The ban on online activity is a method to manipulate and control what people see on social media platforms, websites, or other digital platforms. With individuals being restricted and unable to combat or criticize these types of actions, there are little to no repercussions.
With so much information heavily circulating on social media platforms such as Twitter about relevant topics around the world, like the coronavirus pandemic or other issues related to politics, there is no denying that some autocratic countries are trying to diminish online freedom and control internet infrastructure.
Ways to avoid internet censorship
Such a tremendously dire situation where individuals’ freedom of online speech is heavily restricted or eliminated altogether is difficult to combat. However, there are some ways in which you can avoid internet censorship. Although it is not an ideal solution, and it shouldn’t be necessary to have to adapt to such alternatives, it is good to know that there are some workarounds to gain some of the much-deserved internet freedom.
Apart from the use of VPN services – which can still be used in Russia, given you use the ones that beat the Russian VPN ban – you can also try to use a secure browser for your online activity. This is not the same as using the incognito mode, which doesn’t protect your activity from the ISP. What a secure browser does is quite similar to a VPN – it hides the IP address and clears cookies while it encrypts activity three times.