Want to log onto public WiFi in Russia? Well, according to a new law recently passed there, if you want to use public WiFi anywhere in the country, you must now provide information that completely obliterates any online privacy, apparently so Russian authorities can track everything you do online.
This is undoubtedly an outrage, both in terms of Russian citizens’ personal freedom and the right to not be tracked by government authorities. And it’s not the only thing the Russian government is doing to curtail Internet freedom.
The Scope of the Decree
There is some confusion whether or not this WiFi privacy decree, issued by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, applies to all public WiFi networks, or just the ones around post offices. A Moscow official first indicated that the decree only applied to access points run by the state’s universal communications services network which are only located at Russian post offices.
However, the Russian Communications Ministry later said that this decree extended to all public WiFi hotspots set up by network operators. The Ministry went on to say that while phone numbers are preferred for identification purposes (in order to buy a SIM card in Russia, you need to provide a passport, so phone numbers can directly identify a person), operators can also have users fill out a form or send personal information over a text message. The Ministry did not clarify how a user’s identification would be verified, however.
So why is Russia doing this? Here’s what one official said:
We’re talking about security. There’s an information war going on. Anonymous connection to the Internet in public places allows [people] to engage in illegal activity with impunity. It can be very difficult to find the perpetrator. Americans are afraid of war, right now it’s best for them to wage war in the information sphere. Those interested in destabilization are trying to saturate the web with crooks, fascists and extremists. Everything connected to the Internet must have identification.
In other words, Russia is frightened about its citizens’ inherent right to WiFi privacy and is doing everything in their power to limit it.
Suppressing Internal Dissent via the Internet
This is not the first time that Russia has tried to restrict online privacy. Last May, Putin required popular blogs to pay a 1000 ruble fee and register with the government. Any blog that gets more than 3000 hits a day must be registered with Russia’s Communications and Mass Media ministry. These blogs will be held to the same standards of other media outlets in Russia, and be required to certify the factual accuracy of the information they publish, or face punishment.
Additionally, Russia has passed new laws that give them the right to ban any foreign content without cause, and has forced social media websites, including foreign ones, to store six months’ worth of user data in Russian servers, as well as give unrestricted access to government officials.
To be fair, Russia is not the only Soviet-bloc country which has required public WiFi users to identify themselves before getting network access. Uzbekistan has done this as well.
While the Russian government is claiming they must enforce such restrictions to WiFi privacy in order to stop terrorists, they are rather obvious and ham-fisted ways to try to stifle internal dissent. We can only hope that other countries do not follow in the footsteps of these draconian laws.