Russian internet users fear new restrictions are aimed at silencing criticism

New restrictions on internet use in Russia are sparking strong objections, particularly from opponents who say they are designed to suppress legitimate criticism of the government on the internet.

Opponents worry vaguely defined rules will be open to being abused

Thousands of Russians attend a protest in Moscow Sunday against what they say will be draconian new rules limiting internet freedoms. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

When Kremlin critic Sergei Boiko pressed "send" on his Twitter app last October, little did he know that his simple act would land him in jail for 30 days.

"I got jailed one month for a tweet," he told CBC News in Moscow.

Boiko is an organizer for Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny and is running for mayor in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

"I wrote a tweet about how we're going to [hold] a meeting, without an address or the city, but it was enough to jail me," said Boiko.

Prosecutors charged him with promoting an unsanctioned political gathering, a crime that Navalny himself also served time in jail for.

The opposition figure has enraged the Kremlin elite with his investigations of extravagant spending and lavish living involving those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. His video exposés on YouTube have been watched by tens of millions of Russians.

Sergei Boiko spent a month in a Russian jail last year after sending a tweet inviting people to a protest the Kremlin had declared illegal. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The arrest came last May, after Boiko and other Navalny organizers were involved in non-sanctioned protests over cuts to Russia's pension program for seniors. 

Since then, Boiko has emerged as one of the prominent voices of opposition to a series of proposed new Russian laws that critics say are designed to suppress legitimate criticism of the government on the internet.

More than 10,000 people came out on Sunday to demonstrate against the laws in one of the largest protests Moscow has seen in years, blocking off a major eight-lane boulevard in the middle of the city. 

"The internet was the last place for us where we could criticize freely. If they close the internet, we have no place at all," said Boiko, who told the huge crowd his story.

"The only place [left] will be our living rooms and kitchens."

A portrait of Russian internet entrepreneur Pavel Durov dressed as a saint is held above the crowd at Sunday's protest. Durov founded Telegram, one of Russia's most popular social messengers, and has fought government efforts to shut it down. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Russia's president is poised to sign three new pieces of legislation, possibly as early as this week.

One bill would make it a crime to spread so-called "fake news." Another would make it illegal to make postings that insult or denigrate Russia's government while the third — arguably the most far-reaching measure — would enable Russia's telecommunications authority to start work on creating a stand-alone internet, independent of the outside world, akin to China's Great Firewall.

Controversial figure

The Duma parliamentarian sponsoring the legislation is himself a figure of considerable controversy.

Andrei Lugovoi is a former officer with the Soviet KGB who is accused by Britain of killing Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Duma parliamentarian Andrei Lugovoi, shown in 2013, says Russia needs to protect itself against foreign cyberattacks or attempts to disrupt Russian internet sites. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Litvinenko died after ingesting a radioactive poison, and traces of the substance were found all over London.

Lugovoi, who was elected to Russia's parliament after the incident, says Russia needs to protect itself against foreign cyberattacks or attempts to disrupt Russian internet sites, and these measures will create the capacity to do that.

"Our goal is that in cases where there are aggressive actions that our citizens can continue to use the internet," Lugovoi told Russian parliamentarians during debate on the measures.

'Absolute fallacy'

In response to the huge demonstration over the weekend, Putin's chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying the protesters are mistaken.

"This is an absolute fallacy," Peskov said when asked whether the laws are meant to crack down on dissent.

"No one is in favour of cutting back on the internet or limiting the possibility of a worldwide network," he told the news agency.

Moscow police keep a close eye on the protest Sunday. Although the event was sanctioned by city authorities, 29 people were arrested. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC News)

But opponents fear the vaguely defined rules on what constitutes fake news or insults are open to being abused.

"The internet is all we have," said Mikhail Svetov, a blogger who organized the weekend protest.  

"It's the only place we can expose corruption and police brutality and where we get to know what's going on in our country because our television is completely controlled [by the state]."

Anna Beyanova, 21, who works at a Moscow IT firm, said she came to Sunday's protest because she already worries about posting controversial political views on line.

"I'm scared actually,"  she said.

"If there is a picture of our president that says, for example, he is a liar and I agree with it, I won't repost it because I'm afraid."

Protestor Anna Bayanova told CBC News she is scared to post critical comments about Russia's government. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The Kremlin has tried in the past to curtail criticism on the internet, but with mixed results. In April 2018, the government passed a law to try to block Telegram, the most popular Russian messenger service. However, some providers refused to comply and many Russians continue to access Telegram through VPNs, or virtual private networks.

Russian firewall

Whether Russia actually has the technical capacity to create its own stand-alone internet is also debatable.

Stanislav Shakirov, technical director of Roskomsvoboda, a Russian advocacy group pushing for internet freedom, told CBC News that Russia is a long way from being able to copy the model in China, where most Western search engines, such as Google, are blocked.

"You cannot do it in a year. It needs 10 to 15 years to create an insular internet," he said.

However, he said Russia likely does have the capability to pull the plug on the global internet so that it would be impossible for users inside Russia to communicate with the outside world.

"During the last six years, all international communication channels passed into the hands of six companies," said Shakirov.

"Before it was difficult because they needed to agree with a lot of companies but now they need to make only six calls and after adoption of a new law they will be able to do it even by pressing only one button."

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.


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