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Amnesty, Snowden Decry New Russian Internet Restrictions

Bosnia and Herzegovina -- A video grab -- writing on a keyboard (typing, computer), illustration image, March 10, 2017
Bosnia and Herzegovina -- A video grab -- writing on a keyboard (typing, computer), illustration image, March 10, 2017

Amnesty International has denounced a new Russian law banning the use of Internet proxy services -- including virtual private networks, or VPNs -- as a "major blow to Internet freedom" in the country.

The criticism from the global rights watchdog on July 31 came a day after the Russian government formally published the new law, which President Vladimir Putin signed on July 29.

The law was also criticized by Russia's most famous asylum recipient, former U.S. security consultant Edward Snowden, who leaked a trove of classified U.S. documents on government surveillance before fleeing to Russia.

The main provisions in the new law are set to take effect on November 1, just months before a March 2018 presidential election in which Putin is widely expected to seek and win a new six-year term.

The law will require Internet providers to block websites that offer VPNs and other proxy services. Russians frequently use such websites to access blocked content by routing connections through servers abroad.

Lawmakers who promoted the law said it is needed to prevent the spread of extremist materials and ideas.

Critics say Putin's government often uses that justification to suppress political dissent. Russian authorities in recent years have carried out a broad crackdown on web content deemed extremist.

"This is the latest blow in an assault on online freedom which has seen critical sites blocked and social-media users prosecuted solely for what they post online, under vaguely written antiextremism legislation," Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said in a July 31 statement.

"The ban on VPNs takes this shameful campaign a whole step further," he added.

Putin signed another law on July 29 that will require operators of instant messaging services, such as messenger apps, to establish the identity of those using the services by their phone numbers.

Snowden, meanwhile, called the new restrictions a "violation of human rights"
and a "tragedy of policy."

"Banning the 'unauthorized' use of basic Internet security tools makes Russia both less safe and less free," Snowden, who continues to reside in Russia, wrote on his Twitter feed.

With reporting by AP