Russia restrictions on public Wifi access go into effect
Websites of Putin opponents blocked earlier this year
Russia further tightened its control of the Internet on Friday, requiring people using public Wifi hotspots provide identification, a policy that prompted anger from bloggers and confusion among telecom operators on how it would work.
The decree, signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on July 31 but published online on Friday, also requires companies to declare who is using their web networks. The legislation caught many in the industry by surprise and companies said it was not clear how it would be enforced.
A flurry of new laws regulating Russia's once freewheeling Internet has been condemned by President Vladimir Putin's critics as a crackdown on dissent, after the websites of two of his prominent foes were blocked this year.
Putin, who alarmed industry leaders in April by saying the Internet is "a CIA project", says the laws are needed to fight "extremism" and "terrorism."
Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov said that demanding ID from Internet users was normal. "Identification of users (via bank cards, cell phone numbers, etc.) with access to public Wifi is a worldwide practice," he tweeted.
A pro-Kremlin lawmaker said the measure was needed to prevent Cold War-style propaganda attacks against Russia.
"It's about security. An information war is under way. Anonymous access to the Internet in public areas allows illegal activities to be carried out with impunity," Vadim Dengin, deputy chair of parliament's information technology committee, was quoted by state newspaper Izvestia as saying.
Alexei Venediktov, editor of the popular Ekho Moskvy radio, lampooned the decree, saying the government's next step would be to embed a chip in people's chests "to automatically detect potential sellers of information to the enemy."
Internet companies surprised
Industry experts said vague wording in the decree did not define exactly who would have to comply with the law or what methods would be needed to authenticate users' identity.
The Communications Ministry said in a statement that a "direct obligation to present identity documents" would only be required at "collective access points" such as post offices where the government provides public access to Wifi.
State newspapers Izvestia and Rossiskaya Gazeta said the law required users to provide their full names, confirmed by an ID, at public Wifi access points including cafes and public parks. The personal data would be stored for at least six months.
An official with the Moscow city government, Artem Yermolaev, said user identification could be carried out by registering a telephone number and receiving Wifi logins by SMS.
Internet companies said they knew little about the new law. "It was unexpected, signed in such a short time and without consulting us," said Sergei Plugotarenko, head of the Russian Electronic Communications Association.
The requirement for businesses to declare who was using their Internet networks would be the "biggest headache," he said.
"We will hope that this restrictive tendency stops at some point because soon won't there be anything left to ban."
Another law, which took affect on Aug. 1, requires bloggers with more than 3,000 followers to register with the government and comply with the same rules as media outlets.
Websites are also required to store their data on servers located in Russia from 2016 — a move some believe would cut Russian users off from many international online services.