Russia’s Controversial Move: Ban on VPNs on RuStore Raises Privacy Concern

In the ever-evolving landscape of internet regulation, Russia has taken another bold step by announcing plans to outlaw VPNs available on its domestic app store, RuStore. This decision follows the Russian government’s previous efforts to exert more control over online privacy.

In 2022, Russia introduced RuStore as a homegrown alternative to Google Play and Apple’s App Store. The launch aimed to reduce dependency on foreign tech giants, and ironically, it offered a wide range of VPNs. However, recent developments have mandated the pre-installation of RuStore on tech devices, and this move has raised concerns about the fate of censorship-circumventing VPNs within RuStore.

Russia has been progressively tightening its grip on VPN services for several years. Many foreign companies either withdrew from the Russian market or had to comply with stringent state regulations, which included cooperation with authorities and blocking access to a lengthy list of websites and URLs prohibited by the government.

The practical implications of these regulations remain somewhat unclear, but they are indicative of a growing trend towards increased censorship.

The restricted access to Google Play and Apple’s App Store prompted the creation of RuStore in May 2022. This independent Russian app store operates under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Digital Development, ensuring “guaranteed secure access to applications.” It has become a hub for various apps, including social platforms like Rossgram and Topface.

One notable feature of RuStore is its comprehensive collection of VPN apps, offering users numerous options for enhancing their online privacy. This assortment includes VPNs like VyprVPN, which was reportedly banned from Russia in 2021, and VPN Hub, which, according to reviews, doesn’t function in Russia but includes a “bonus battery booster.”

RuStore’s success is evident, with more than eight million installations in its first year online, as stated by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. This success prompted the government to require phone importers to preinstall the app, ensuring it’s readily available to users.

Now, Senator Artem Sheikin, a member of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building, is urging the Ministry of Digital Development to scrutinize RuStore’s VPN offerings. He advocates for a review of existing VPNs and the establishment of criteria for future VPN inclusion, emphasizing compliance with Russian legislation regarding access to the register of prohibited information.

While Shadayev may undertake a review of VPNs, reports indicate that Roscomnadzor has already drafted an order outlining the criteria for disqualifying VPNs from RuStore. Notably, VPN apps should not facilitate access to websites listed on the Unified Register, Russia’s blacklist of sites hosting content deemed “prohibited information.”

As Russia continues its efforts to restrict access to information resources, including “extremist platforms” like Facebook and Instagram, the use of VPNs for unblocking restricted sites is set to become illegal, likely effective March 1, 2024.

The debate over internet regulation and online privacy in Russia continues, with questions surrounding the impact of these measures on digital freedom and access to information.

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