Russia faces increased Internet restrictions

'Sorm' threatens the privacy of Russian citizens and contributes, some believe, to blackmail and industrial espionage

On Friday a Russian pro-democracy campaigner denounced attempts by Vladimir Putin's government to infringe on the Internet privacy of citizens and to control the content of independent Web sites.

At a conference organised by Privacy International, Boris Pustinsev, president of St Petersburg-based Citizens Watch, explained it would be necessary soon to obtain a state licence in order to publish even the most simple Internet site. For Pustinsev, this is a new attempt by the FSB (the information agency that has succeeded the KGB) to seriously tighten up on the use of the Internet.

Pustinsev referred to "Sorm 2", a system of black boxes that must be installed by Internet service providers (ISPs) in Russia allowing interception of their subscribers' correspondence. ISPs must pay at least $15,000 (about £9,300) for these, including installation costs. According to Citizens Watch, the expenses include setting up a fibre-optic connection to the local office of the FSB. Pustinsev stated that in the event of refusal, a provider faces the threat of having its licence revoked.

"Our only defence against Sorm is the constitution," explains Pustinev. "It says that no police officer or agent can read your mail without an official mandate from a judge or a prosecutor. Since 1995 only a judge can provide this mandate."

The only Russian ISP that has refused to comply with Sorm, BSK of Volvograd, lost its licence at the beginning of the year for daring to ignore the interdict. "It was almost a miracle, but with the assistance of our lawyers and the Ministry [of Communications] its licence was restored, on the basis of rights guaranteed by our constitution," says Pustinsev.

"But since then the president [Putin] has proposed a law which would impose the granting of this same licence for any editor of an updated Internet site at least once a year." This law ("On state registration of Internet mass media", according to Radio Free Europe), could be voted in before the end of September 2000, warns Pustinsev.

Citizens Watch therefore expects that some new barrier to free expression will be introduced as a pretext for encouraging reluctant ISPs to accept Sorm without complaint. "With this new law it would be easier to refuse a licence. We think that the Russian security services never gave up the old traditions of the KGB, we cannot have confidence," insists Pustinev. "A system such as Sorm can be used to collect political information in order to blackmail someone or to conduct industrial espionage. We are convinced that Sorm contributes to this."

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