Facebook, Gmail, Skype face Russia ban under 'anti-terror' data snooping plan

The Russian parliament's latest play could see major Western technology firms banned from the country if they don't store data on its soil — a move that would allow Russian authorities to easily snoop on user data.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in Moscow, Facebook is one of the companies at risk from the new Russian "anti-terrorism" law.
Image: Facebook

Russia's parliament has passed a bill that could see Western technology firms barred from operating if they fail to store Russian data within the country.

The legislation would require Silicon Valley companies, such as Facebook, Google’s Gmail, and Microsoft-owned Skype, to relocate Russian customer data back onto Russian soil in order to allow authorities to legally acquire and inspect data at will.

Currently, Russian authorities have no powers to acquire data outside its borders, unless they submit a lawful mutual legal assistance request, which can be denied by that nation.

The "Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information" amendment, part of the country's anti-terrorism laws, would give state security and intelligence services authority to access the data.

Should domestic Russian or foreign email, social networking, and instant messaging providers fail to provide access to six months' worth of data, they face being barred from operating in the country altogether.

The Russian Duma, the country's lower house, moved to adopt the law as of Tuesday following a successful third reading of the bill.

The law — which has yet to be ratified by Russian President Vladimir Putin — would force foreign companies to install servers and datacenters inside Russia in order to be compliant with the law. It would give the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, formerly KGB) and other media and "mass communication" regulators greater control over the Russian Internet, and could see sites removed from the country's Internet register.

That would mean Internet providers on Russian soil could be forced to block access to sites and services, preventing them from being accessible to the general public.

It comes just two weeks after the European Union's highest court overturned similar controversial data retention laws, which had forced Internet providers to store data for up to two years for law enforcement and intelligence purposes. 

As a non-European Union member, Russia recognizes some Brussels-born legislation in order to maintain relations with the 28-member state bloc, but actively rejects others — not least in its anti-terrorism and data collection legislation. 

Bloggers, citizen activists affected

The law (translated) states that any site operating in the country does "not allow… for the dissemination of materials… publicly justifying terrorism and other extremist materials, and materials that promote pornography, violence and cruelty, and materials containing obscene language."

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It comes less than two years after the Russian government implemented an Internet blacklist law under the guise of anti-pornography and extremist sites rhetoric, which allowed the Russian authorities to censor sites that would hamper political opponents of the ruling administration.

The Kremlin-supported bill, which passed in July 2012, forced any website falling foul of its strict anti-"extremist" law to remove content or face being added to the blacklist within 24 hours.

The "blacklist" law came at a time during the Pussy Riot furor, which landed the four members of the Russian punk band in prison for two years after they allegedly broke hooliganism laws, a criminal offense under the country's judicial system.

The band's videos, uploaded to YouTube and other sites, were blocked from access within the country following a Russian court's decision to classify the content as "extremist" material under the blacklist law.

Russia's Yandex Internet provider said in a statement (translated): "In our opinion, the adoption of the law will be another step towards the strengthening of state control over the Internet in Russia, which has a negative impact on the development industry."

The law can also be applied to bloggers, citizen journalists, and activists, according to the bill's text, which would also force them to "place on their website… their name and initials, the email address for sending him a legally meaningful message."

Increasing isolation

The Putin and Medvedev tag-team administration has since 2012 ramped up its Internet monitoring and censorship activities as it faces increased pressure from Western governments over claims of internal power struggles and political corruption — not least from opposition political groups who claim they are being oppressed by the federal government.

Russia, with a population of more than 145 million people, continues to face increasing isolation from the G8 group of countries over its annexation of Crimea after the former Ukrainian president fled the country amid uprising earlier this year. The annexation, decried as an unconstitutional move by the Ukrainian government, led the peninsula to become de-facto Russian territory, but was not legally recognized by the US or European authorities.

Russia's recent legislature has led privacy experts to warn of the restriction of freedom of speech, information, and politics of opposition members critical of the Kremlin and Putin regime.

In the past week alone, the founder of Russia's largest social network, VK.com, which has more than 100 million users, claimed he was fired, according to BBC News. He alleges that allies of Putin took over the site after he refused requests from the Russian government to censor posts on his site.

Pavel Durov has since fled Russia and says he has no plans to return. "Russia is now incompatible with Internet business at the moment," he told TechCrunch in an interview on Wednesday.

Russia's lower parliament has also banned swearing in films, plays, concerts, and shows, BBC News reports.  

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