Russia moots ban on discussions about VPNs, reverse proxies, and other anti-censorship techniques

Russian law provides for a national censorwall that entertainment companies can populate with the URLs of websites they dislike, without much oversight or review (it's similar the system used in the UK in that regard).

Such censorwalls are largely useless at preventing copyright infringement, since anyone hoping to download infringing material just has to type something like "How do I get around my country's censorship system?" into a search engine, to find lots of Web pages that explain, in nontechnical language, how to beat the censorship regime, using tools like VPNs, reverse proxies, and Tor.

The Russian group AZAPO (Association for the Protection of Copyright on the Internet), which represents many large rightsholder groups, has petitioned Rozkomnadzor, the country's federal telcoms watchdog, to institute a system of fines for people caught discussing these technologies online, starting at $70 and ranging up to $14,500.

Rozkomnadzor has declined to ban the tools themselves — they have widespread applicability beyond beating censorship — but they have vowed to punish people who teach others about their existence and use.

I'm sure the AZAPO people will say that they only want to censor access to sites they view as illegitimate, but their own admission that blocking the sites is insufficient tells you that they aren't just about site-blocking. To achieve their goals, they'll have to ban discussions of the goals themselves, and then discussions of those discussions, and so on and on.

Rightsholders face significant challenge in the 21st century. But if you're an artist, or if you're an organization purporting to be on the side of artists, then you should be against censorship and surveillance. If your business model only works if there is widespread, unaccountable surveillance and censorship, you're on the wrong side of history.

"The introduction of [a system of fines] for those who promote methods for bypassing Internet blockades will enhance the effectiveness of blocking prohibited Internet resources," the group writes.

At this stage the proposals suggest fines ranging from around $70 for "entrepreneurial individuals" right up to $14,500 for those operating within a legal entity but it's not yet clear how these fines will be managed or enforced.

While discussion of circumvention could soon be off-limits, there's no intention of banning circumvention tools outright. Noting that they have legitimate uses, Rozkomnadzor says it simply wants to draw a line in the sand over the way they're promoted online.