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Russia Turns the Screws on Internet Freedom

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, visits the country's largest internet search engine Yandex headquarters in Moscow, Sept. 21, 2017.

New legislation likely to be introduced next month in Russia's Duma, or lower chamber of parliament, would see tighter restrictions on the internet and on computers, tablets and other devices used to access the internet.

The proposals include a provision for the identification of all email users and a requirement for new internet-able devices to be sold with pre-installed Russian software — a legal obligation that could stop Apple, which won't install non-Apple software on its products, from selling computers and laptops in Russia.

When the details of the legislation were first revealed last week, most media attention was focused on the proposal to limit to 20 percent the share foreign investors can own in Russian tech companies, a provision analysts calculated was aimed at Russia's largest internet company, Yandex. On Friday, Yandex saw the value of its shares plunge more than 18 percent on the Wall Street stock exchange, the steepest decline in a year. Yandex owns the most popular Russian search engine and provides other online-based services, including food delivery and taxis.

While the proposed ownership limiting foreign stakes in IT companies immediately alarmed foreign stock markets, the other provisions are adding to a slow burn of doubt with investors fearing further tech and internet restrictions will make it increasingly difficult to do business in Russia — or to do so ethically.

For rights campaigners and anti-Kremlin opposition groups, the entire package — which was drafted by pro-Kremlin lawmakers, but which local media say has the backing of the Russian government — amounts to a tightening of control by the authorities of the internet and a further enhancement of their ability to monitor online activity.

The government has been ramping up its internet regulations, seeking to exercise greater control over its physical infrastructure as well and regulate the content that can be accessed by Russians. In the past few years, it has required search engines to delete some search results and oblige messaging services to share encryption keys with security services.

In March, President Vladimir Putin signed two measures into law, one banning the publication of "unreliable, socially significant information" on the internet and another introducing fines and jail time for internet users who "disrespect" the authorities.

'Online Iron Curtain'

Ahead of his signing, thousands staged a rally in Moscow opposing the measures, saying the provisions would isolate Russians behind an "online Iron Curtain" and pave the way for nationwide censorship. "If they take that, we will have nothing," said Mikhail Svetov from the Libertarian Party. "We don't have free elections, we don't have press freedom, the television is completely controlled —the internet is the only place where we talk about corruption."

The fresh legislation rewriting the rules again would allow authorities to block individual email or users from messaging apps that circulate banned content. Internet companies would be required within 24 hours of notification to block individual users when asked to do so by Roskomnadzor, the state communications watchdog.

FILE - People hold a banner reading "Hands off the Internet" during a rally in protest against court decision to block the Telegram messenger because it violated Russian regulations, in Moscow, Russia, May 13, 2018.
FILE - People hold a banner reading "Hands off the Internet" during a rally in protest against court decision to block the Telegram messenger because it violated Russian regulations, in Moscow, Russia, May 13, 2018.

One of the lawmakers who drafted the legislation, Anton Gorelkin, says the new rules are needed on national security grounds. The lawmakers say fresh legislation is needed to combat a wave of hoax bomb threats. "It is more efficient to completely block a user, not the individual messages sent by them," said Andrey Klishas, another one of the lawmakers behind the measure.

Pavel Durov, the Russian creator of encrypted messaging service Telegram, has been under intense pressure to hand over the company's encryption keys. He has declined and been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities who have sought to little avail to block Telegram from operating in Russia.

Last week, Russia's state communications watchdog announced it and its Chinese counterpart will sign a cooperation treaty aimed at combating illegal content on the internet, adding to the alarm of internet freedom advocates. Roskomnadzor says the agreement is scheduled to be signed on October 20 at an international internet conference.

China has been even more effective than the Russian authorities in controlling content on the internet behind a so-called Great Firewall. Legions of censors constantly trawl (sift through) what's posted and delete anything thought inappropriate — an effort that assists in technical blocks and pressures foreign online companies to restrict content as well as apps that can be used in the country.

Russia doesn't can't match, as yet, China's technical capabilities, say industry experts, as its failure to shut down Telegram demonstrates. It has also banned the use of VPNs, unless approved by the authorities. A VPN is a virtual private network and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks anonymously. So far, though, VPNs function in Russia.