VPN law latest step in Kremlin online crackdown, experts say

Laws curbing Internet freedoms were drafted following mass protests in 2011 and 2012 against Vladimir Putin over disputed election results. (AFP)
Updated 29 October 2017
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VPN law latest step in Kremlin online crackdown, experts say

MOSCOW: A law coming into force on Wednesday will give the Kremlin greater control over what Russians can access online ahead of a presidential election next March.
Providers of virtual private networks (VPNs) — which let Internet users access sites banned in one country by making it appear that they are browsing from abroad — will be required to block websites listed by the Russian state communications watchdog.
The law is the latest in a raft of restrictions introduced by President Vladimir Putin’s government and is expected to affect journalists and opposition activists, even though several VPN providers say they will not comply.
Videos by the punk band Pussy Riot and the blog of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have in the past been blocked under a law that allows authorities to blacklist websites they consider extremist.
“Journalists and activists who are using this to put out messages anonymously will be affected,” Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.
Even if they are able to work around the new restrictions, the law will send a powerful message to activists, she said.
“If you’re thinking about taking the steps that you need to stay anonymous from the government, you think maybe it’s not worth it.”
The law will likely be selectively applied and will probably not affect foreign business people using company VPNs, she said.
The measure is part of a wider crackdown on online communications, which this month saw the popular messaging app, Telegram, fined for failing to register with the Roskomnadzor communications watchdog and provide the FSB with information on user interactions.
Starting from 2018, companies on the Roskomnadzor register must also store all the data of Russian users inside the country, according to anti-terror legislation which was passed last year and decried by the opposition and Internet companies.
On Thursday, the Russian parliament’s lower house approved a draft law that would let the attorney general blacklist the websites of “undesirable organizations” without a court order.
While falling short of a blanket ban on virtual private networks, the new law undermines one of their key purposes and “essentially asks VPN services to help enforce Russia’s censorship regime,” Harold Li, vice president at ExpressVPN International, said by email.
“VPNs are central to online privacy, anonymity, and freedom of speech, so these restrictions represent an attack on digital rights,” Li said.
“We hope and expect that most major VPN services will not bend to these new restrictions.”
Providers ZenMate and Private Internet Access — which said it removed all of its servers from Russia in 2016 after several of them were seized by authorities without notification — have already announced that they would not enforce the list of banned websites.
Companies that do not comply are likely to see their own websites placed on the Russian blacklist.
Amnesty International has called the new legislation “a major blow to Internet freedom” and Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who lives in Russia, said the measure “makes Russia both less safe and less free.”
Laws curbing Internet freedoms were drafted following mass protests in 2011 and 2012 against Putin over disputed election results.
The new measures come into force ahead of presidential elections next March, when Putin is widely expected to extend his grip on power to 2024.
Russia’s opposition groups rely heavily on the Internet to make up for their lack of access to the mainstream media.
“The path that Russia chose four years ago is founded on the concept of digital sovereignty,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, lawyer and director of the Digital Rights Center.
“It’s the idea that the government should control the domestic part of the Internet. Western countries do not support this concept and so what we are seeing today is an Asian-style development of the Internet,” along the lines of China and Iran, he said.
But Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that even if the Kremlin’s end goal is “complete control of communications on the Internet,” its technical capabilities still lag way behind China with its “Great Firewall.”
Many of the invasive measures pushed by the Kremlin are comparable with the snooping powers demanded by Western governments, she said.
“Russia will frequently point to the fact that the FBI and (British Prime Minister) Theresa May want these powers as reasons why they should have them, and why they’re compatible with human rights.”


Loss of Earth’s intact forests speeds up: scientists

The last forest frontiers also play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity, weather stability, clean air, and water quality. (Shutterstock)
Updated 20 June 2018
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Loss of Earth’s intact forests speeds up: scientists

  • Nearly ten percent of undisturbed forests have been fragmented, degraded or simply chopped down since 2000, according to the analysis of satellite imagery
  • Some 500 million people worldwide depend directly on forests for their livelihood

PARIS: Earth’s intact forests shrank annually by nearly 90,000 square kilometers — an area the size of Austria — from 2014 to 2016, 20 percent faster than during the previous 13 years, according to findings presented at a conference in Oxford this week.
Despite UN-led efforts to halt deforestation, nearly ten percent of undisturbed forests have been fragmented, degraded or simply chopped down since 2000, according to the analysis of satellite imagery.
Average daily loss over the first 17 years of this century was more than 200 sq km (75 sq miles).
“Degradation of intact forest represents a global tragedy, as we are systematically destroying a crucial foundation of climate stability,” said Frances Seymour, a senior distinguished fellow at the World Resources Institute, and a contributor to the research.
“Forests are the only safe, natural, proven and affordable infrastructure we have for capturing and storing carbon.”
The last forest frontiers also play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity, weather stability, clean air, and water quality.
Some 500 million people worldwide depend directly on forests for their livelihood.
So-called “intact forest landscapes” — which can include wetlands and natural grass pastures — are defined as areas of at least 500 sq km (200 sq miles) with no visible evidence in satellite images of large-scale human use.
Concretely, that means no roads, industrial agriculture, mines, railways, canals or transmission lines.
As of January 2017, there were about 11.6 million sq km (4.5 million sq miles) of forests worldwide that still fit these criteria.
“Many countries may lose all their forest wildlands in the next 15 to 20 years,” Peter Potapov, an associate professor at the University of Maryland and lead scientist for the research, told AFP.
On current trends, intact forests will disappear by 2030 in Paraguay, Laos and Equatorial Guinea, and by 2040 in the Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Myanmar, Cambodia and Angola.
“There could come a point in the future where no areas in the world qualify as ‘intact’ anymore,” said Tom Evans, director for forest conservation and climate mitigation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“It is certainly worrying.”
In tropical countries, the main causes of virgin forest loss are conversion to agriculture and logging. In Canada and the United States, fire is the main culprit, while in Russia and Australia, the destruction has been driven by fires, mining and energy extraction.
Compared to annual declines during the period 2000-2013, Russia lost, on average, 90 percent more each year from 2014 to 2016.
For Indonesia, the increase was 62 percent, and for Brazil it was 16 percent.
The new results are based on a worldwide analysis of satellite imagery, built on a study first done in 2008 and repeated in 2013.
“The high resolution data, like the one collected by the Landsat program, allows us to detect human-caused alteration and fragmentation of forest wildlands,” said Potapov.
Presented at the Intact Forests in the 21st Century conference at Oxford University, the finding will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication, said Potapov, who delivered a keynote to the three-day gathering.
Addressing colleagues from around the world, Potapov also challenged the effectiveness of a global voluntary certification system.
Set up in 1994 and backed by green groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the self-stated mission of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.”
Many forest-products carry the FSC label, designed to reassure eco-conscious consumers.
But approximately half of all intact forest landscapes inside FSC-certified concessions were lost from 2000 to 2016 in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, the new data showed.
In Cameroon, about 90 percent of FSC-monitored forest wildlands disappeared.
“FSC is an effective mechanism to fragment and degrade remaining intact forest landscapes, not a tool for their protection,” Potapov said.
National and regional parks have helped to slow the rate of decline.
The chances of forest loss was found to be three times higher outside protected areas than inside them, the researchers reported.