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Russia’s controversial ‘sovereign internet’ law comes into force

Vladimir Putin's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. (The Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A controversial Russian law on the Internet came into force on November 1 amid warnings from critics that the legislation is an attempt to increase censorship.

The so-called “sovereign Internet” law, adopted by lawmakers and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin earlier this year, requires providers to install equipment that could route Russian web traffic through points that are controlled by the state.

It also includes provisions on the creation of a Russian domestic domain-name system.

Backers of the law say it will make what they call the Russian segment of the Internet — known as Runet — more independent. They argue the law is needed to guard Russia against potential cyberattacks.

But critics have warned the law will lead to censorship across wide parts of the Internet and allow for greater surveillance of Internet users by Russian intelligence agencies.

Many view the law as part of an ambitious government campaign to prevent the Internet from being used to organize protests or encourage civil disobedience.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Russian government gained “even greater control over freedom of speech and information online” when the legislation went into effect.

“Now the government can directly censor content or even turn Russia’s Internet into a closed system without telling the public what they are doing or why,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director.

Christian Mihr, from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said the law “proves that the Russian leadership is ready to bring the entire network infrastructure under political control in order to cut off the digital information flow whenever needed.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the government has no plans to isolate Russian Internet users.

“No one is suggesting cutting the Internet,” Peskov said, accusing protesters of suffering from “delusions.”

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow and other cities in March to denounce the bill.

Russian officials have defended the legislation as a protective measure needed to prevent the United States from disabling Runet.

The law stipulates that if Russian officials perceive threats to online security, the state media watchdog Roskomnadzor could essentially seize control of the Internet in Russia without giving prior notice to providers — and to filter all Internet traffic in the country.