Russian ‘Sovereign Internet' Bill Attacked Over Censorship Risks

(Bloomberg) -- Russian lawmakers criticized a draft law aimed at creating a “sovereign internet,” warning that it risked handing the government extensive powers to censor online content.

The proposal to establish control of Russian internet traffic so that it goes mostly via domestic routers and exchanges was passed at first reading in the lower house of parliament on Tuesday. Advocates in the pro-Kremlin United Russia party argued the measure would ensure Russia’s internet network continued to operate if the country is cut off from foreign root servers, prompting an unusual outbreak of dissent in the normally docile legislature.

“It has nothing to do with protecting the Russian internet from being shut off from abroad,” lawmaker Sergei Ivanov, of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said at the hearing. “You know how the Chinese internet works - there is a list of banned websites that you can’t access from China and a list of key words you can’t search for. This is what you want?”

Other lawmakers suggested the draft legislation would make it easier for officials to block services such as Facebook and Google if they fail to comply with prosecutors’ demands to bar access to content declared illegal in Russia. Internet service providers would have to install traffic-monitoring equipment under the law that would automatically block access to websites deemed to be illegal, according to the Russian Communications Ministry.

State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the draft proposals would need to be reworked before the second reading, and urged lawmakers to consult experts on the potential consequences, according to the legislature’s website. The government also agreed to conduct regular tests of the functioning of Russia’s internet to detect potential threats and responses.

The proposal is a reaction to the U.S.’s “aggressive” national cybersecurity strategy adopted in September, amid “unsubstantiated” accusations of Russian involvement in hacking operations, according to the draft document.

Russia has gradually tightened control over the internet in recent years, citing the need to fight terrorism and cyber threats. Anti-Kremlin activists say the measures are part of attempts to crack down on political dissent and public discontent on issues such as rising prices and increases in the pension age.

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