Russian lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill that would expand government control of the internet and whose opponents fear heralds a new era of widespread censorship.
The bill would install equipment to route Russian Internet traffic through servers in the country. That would increase the power of state agencies to control information and block messaging applications, while users would find it more difficult to circumvent government restrictions.
Supporters of the bill say it is a defense measure in case Russia is disconnected from the internet by the United States or other hostile powers.
Nikolai Zemtsov, a lawmaker who backed the bill, told The Associated Press that Russia could cooperate with the former Soviet countries in a “Runet” where critical Western media news was restricted.
“It could be that in our limited and sovereign internet we will only be stronger,” he said.
But the move has caused concern in a society that has grown used to an open Internet. Several thousand people took to the streets of Moscow in protest last month.
Sergei Boiko, a libertarian activist who helped organize the protests, said there could be more demonstrations.
“The objective is to establish the monopoly of the authorities on information in the country,” he told the AP. “It is no longer the Soviet times when it was enough to control the media, the telegraph, and the printing presses. That was enough. Now they need to control a larger environment, and they need to control the Internet.”
Boiko predicted that internet speeds in Russia would be drastically reduced due to the installation of the equipment required by the bill, and said it could “slip away” into Russia’s rapidly developing tech sector.
“The authorities are ready to accept the degradation of the internet in Russia to control it,” he said.
The bill passed 322-15 on a second reading in the lower house of parliament.
The second reading is when the amendments are finalized, and is usually the most important. The bill must pass a third reading and the upper house before it is signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
Since last year, Russian authorities have been trying to block the messaging app Telegram, which has refused to deliver encrypted messages from users in defiance of a court order.
Telegram’s traffic used millions of different internet protocol addresses, meaning that attempts to block it resembled a game of whack-a-mole. Many unrelated apps, online stores and even Volvo’s auto repair services were temporarily offline last year before Russian officials eased their pressure. The new law could facilitate a lockdown.
Russia already requires that certain personal information about Russian citizens be stored on servers in the country. That measure led to the blocking of the social network LinkedIn in 2016.
By moving to exert greater control of the internet, which is not overseen by a central authority, the Russian government is taking a page from China’s playbook.
China subjects its 700 million internet users to extensive monitoring and strict controls. Beijing has an automated filtering system, known as the “Great Firewall,” to block political content and sites related to gambling and pornography. Chinese users are unable to use Western internet sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter, leaving the market open for local giants like Tencent.
Chinese regulators have increased scrutiny on local microblogs such as Weibo, ordering them to establish a mechanism to remove false information. They have also been cracking down on virtual private networks – software that can be used to circumvent Internet filters by creating encrypted links between blocked computers and sites.
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