VPNs are a vital defence against censorship – but they’re under attack

By Joshua Franco, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International. Follow Joshua on Twitter @joshyrama.

You have probably heard of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), right? They’re those things you use to stream movies online in other countries that are annoyingly blocked in yours. If VPNs were banned, how would you watch the latest robot apocalypse blockbuster online without having to wait a whole year?

Now imagine that the online content banned in your country isn’t movies, but rather major social media platforms, or the main sources of information about your religion, or your sexual orientation. Imagine you use a VPN to access this information, and now that tool is being taken away.

This is what’s about to happen in Russia. It’s already happening in China.

On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning anonymizers and VPNs, while over the weekend, Apple pulled most major VPNs from its app store in China, in order to comply with national legislation requiring VPNs to be licensed by the government

Anonymizers, such as VPNs or TOR, are a key enabler of human rights online. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye, has noted: “Encryption and anonymity provide individuals and groups with a zone of privacy online to hold opinions and exercise freedom of expression without arbitrary and unlawful interference or attacks… A VPN connection, or use of Tor or a proxy server, combined with encryption, may be the only way in which an individual is able to access or share information in [environments with prevalent censorship].”

Russia is one such environment. Overly broad anti-extremism laws in Russia allow for the prosecution of people for all types of expression protected by human rights law. For example a young blogger was recently convicted and given a three-and-a-half year suspended prison sentence for “inciting hatred” and “offending believers’ feelings” after he posted a video of himself playing Pokémon Go in a cathedral in Yekaterinburg.

Meanwhile Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda law” is used to censor and punish content relevant to LGBTI people and LGBTI rights. The discriminatory law was recently – and rightly – condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, but it nonetheless remains in force. The absurd situation is now that the authorities consider “extremist” a caricature depicting President Putin as a “gay clown,” while at the same time failing to open a formal investigation into the horrific campaign of abduction, torture and in some cases killings of gay men in Chechnya.

In this environment of censorship and state-sponsored homophobia, online anonymity can be a lifeline. Anonymizing tools like VPNs could allow crucial access to impartial and accurate information, especially to LGBTI kids and teenagers, who may not be able to access it elsewhere. The internet is also a key means for seeking out community and support. Taking away VPNs will leave more and more people stuck in a smaller online world, where even the statement “homosexuality is natural” is considered illegal.

Anonymizing tools can also help protect political rights. It is becoming an unfortunately common tactic for governments to shut down or block parts of the web around elections, protests or other sensitive events. For example, Amnesty International and OONI (Open Observatory of Network Interference) documented how the Ethiopian government used illegal blocking to censor information about protests in which as many as 800 people were killed by security forces, and to block messaging apps.

Notably, the anonymizing tool TOR showed a spike in traffic during these times, clearly indicating the usefulness of anonymization tools to circumvent unlawful censorship and exercise the right to access information.

That is why Apple’s decision is deeply disappointing. Internet censorship in China is expansive, and increasing: the country aims to ban all non-state-operated VPN services by January 2018. If other companies follow Apple’s lead, it could soon be much harder for people in China to access information freely online.

Apple says it is simply complying with Chinese law, but this is not a sufficient response. Businesses have a responsibility to respect international human rights law, independent of a state’s own compliance with their human rights obligations. By withdrawing access to VPNs from its Chinese customers, Apple is betraying these responsibilities. We would have expected a more robust stance from Apple, a company that prides itself on being a privacy champion.

The internet once seemed to offer the promise of nearly unfettered access to communication, across borders, and free of the heavy-handed censorship which too often plagued broadcast or print media. This free flow of information promised to bring us together and make the world smaller.

But if governments are able to restrict our access to information they don’t approve of, through censorship and blocking access to tools to circumvent it, then that promise will die. In its place we will find increasingly closed islands of information – and the web will be a less inclusive place.