Russia: No, we don't want to curb online freedoms - we want to protect internet

Russian government claims to back internet freedom, as protesters slam its Runet plan.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The Russian government has denied claims by activists that its plan to make the Russian internet separable from the rest of the internet has anything to do with clamping down on online freedoms.

Legislation for the potential independence of the Russian internet space — the so-called Runet — was proposed at the end of last year. 

The idea, which is roughly analogous to China's Great Firewall, is to be able to block outside content and keep Russian traffic within the country's borders. A test of the idea's viability is scheduled to take place on April 1.

Last weekend, as many as 15,000 protesters rallied in Moscow against the internet sovereignty law, which was cleared in February by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. An estimated 30 people were arrested before and during the rally.

The protests were spearheaded by the country's Libertarian Party. According to an account by The Moscow Times, organizers and participants maintained that the legislation is designed to ease the way for censorship of the internet in Russia, and to make it harder for opposition figures to organize protests.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied these claims, arguing that "everyone is calling for internet freedom".

"We cannot support their misunderstanding and deception that the passed bills are somehow aimed at limiting internet freedom," Peskov told reporters, according to TASS news agency.

"On the contrary, they are designed to ensure [the] internet's viability amid potential aggressive steps in cyberspace against our country."

Regarding a televised interview with a protester who apparently claimed the Kremlin wants to be able to cut Russia off the rest of the internet with the press of a button, Peskov said: "This is absolutely a deception. However, this participant somehow is not afraid that someone overseas will press this button and disconnect him from the internet."

SEE: Can Russian hackers be stopped? Here's why it might take 20 years (TechRepublic cover story) | download the PDF version

The law has always been pitched as a defensive measure. It would involve the completion of a national Domain Name System (DNS), and the localization of all content that the Russian authorities are prepared to let people see, in the event of the plan being activated. 

Russian internet exchange points and internet service providers would be "required to ensure the possibility of centralized control over traffic, in the event of a threat".

The aggressor in that scenario is most likely the US, which repeatedly cited Russia as an online aggressor in last year's National Cyber Strategy — though there is no evidence to suggest the US is planning to cut any countries off the internet.

As for Peskov's claim that "as far as internet freedom is concerned, the position of [the protesters] can be backed," there is an awful lot of evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is no fan of the concept.

In recent years, Russian authorities have introduced draconian data-retention and data-localization laws, banned virtual private networks (VPNs), prosecuted many people for sharing "extremist" memes, told mobile operators to record which people are using which messaging apps, banned the messaging app Telegram for refusing to hand over encryption keys, cracked down on bloggers, and called on citizens to help scour the internet for content that should be blocked.

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