Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing a new law that would allow him to control the internet by censoring content he doesn't approve of.
Putin’s plan, currently being discussed in the Duma (the lower house of Russia’s Parliament), is designed to create a “sovereign internet” and seeks the creation of centralized hubs that would allow the Kremlin to monitor all the traffic flowing across Russian internet space and block or filter anything it doesn’t like.
The draft law calls on Russian internet service providers to create the “technical means” to disconnect the Russian internet (Runet) from the global internet and, in the case of a cyberattack, to reroute all Russian internet traffic through servers based inside the country.
Putin claims that such measures are necessary in the face of a new, more aggressive U.S. national cybersecurity strategy.
“The more sovereignty we have, including in the digital field, the better. This is a very important area,” Putin told a gathering of media executives last week.
But the Kremlin’s new proposal risks creating an online censorship apparatus akin to China’s Great Firewall, granting the Kremlin new authority to filter out or block entire websites or comments whenever it wants.
Indeed, Putin’s latest proposal appears less geared toward preventing cyberattacks and more concerned with clamping down on critical speech online.
“This law isn’t about foreign threats, or banning Facebook and Google, which Russia can already do legally,” Andrei Soldatov, author of “The Red Web: The Kremlin’s Wars on the Internet,” told Bloomberg. “It’s about being able to cut off certain types of traffic in certain areas during times of civil unrest.”
Despite winning the presidential election in a landslide last March, Putin is facing increased criticism at home, with his approval ratings plummeting thanks to unpopular tax hikes, rising consumer prices and dropping wages.
Russia already tightly controls traditional media outlets like television and newspapers, now Putin is hoping to rein in the internet. And China's model appears to be the blueprint he's most interested in following.
The similarities weren’t lost on dissenting politicians in Russia.
“This has nothing to do with protecting the Russian Internet from being shut off from abroad, ” Sergei Ivanov, a lawmaker with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said at a hearing in Russia's lower house of parliament last month. “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 keywords you can’t search for. This is what you want?,” he asked
Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net index already lists Russia as among the world’s worst countries for internet freedom. “Russian authorities have continued to develop and implement laws that allow government agencies to restrict access to websites and content related to the political opposition, the conflict in Ukraine, and the LGBTI community,” the group wrote in its latest report.
The Kremlin is currently blocking around 80,000 websites and social media platforms, according to monitoring group Roskomsvoboda.
Cover: Russian President Vladimir Putin during meeting with Anatoly Bibilov, the leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)