Russia is planning to temporarily unplug from the internet next month in preparation for installing safeguards to internet access in the event of a foreign cyberattack - particularly from the United States.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the podium on Wednesday to address his country’s parliament as a part of his annual state of the union, his was a message of modernisation in the digital age and the need to embrace technology.
What he did not say is that such an embrace may come at the expense of internet freedom.
Expected to adopt a controversial new law that would install safeguards to internet access in the event of a foreign cyberattack - particularly from the United States - Russia is slated to temporarily unplug from the internet before April 1.
The legislation was drafted in response to what its authors describe as an aggressive new US national cybersecurity strategy passed last year.
Critics warn that the so-called ‘sovereign’ internet law, also dubbed a digital “iron curtain” by critics and Russian media would merely serve as a tool for the government to impose censorship on dissenting views on social media.
“It’s obvious that to block Google, Facebook or any other powerful global platform would be much harder, so they want to have a more effective tool for content filtering as well as [to build] a ‘big red button’ that would allow them to turn off the Internet entirely in the event of mass protests,” Damir Gainutdinov, a legal analyst at the human rights organization Agora International, told TRT World.
Russia’s attempt to stifle the flow of information online comes as increasingly authoritarian governments around the world are moving towards a Chinese model of digital control by imposing stricter regulations that threaten internet freedom and their underlying democracies.
Called the “Great Firewall of China,” it is the world's most extensive effort to try to control cyberspace that effectively filters data between local and foreign servers.
As a result, numerous websites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and some foreign media outlets are banned as Beijing, fears the uncensored sharing of images and information could cause social instability and harm national security.
Some internet users bypass the restrictions using VPNs, but authorities in China are cracking down on the use as well.
According to a report published in October by US-based rights group Freedom House, governments in 18 out of 65 countries studied have passed new laws or directives to increase state surveillance since June 2017, often bypassing independent oversight and public discourse altogether.
“As governments recognise the importance of the data flowing in and out of their countries, they are establishing new rules and barriers in the name of national sovereignty, allowing officials to control and inspect such information at will,” the report states.
“Securing internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy as a whole,” it continues.
Leading the way in the number of internet shutdowns, with over 100 reported incidents in 2018 alone is India, according to the report. India inched even closer to what is being called “digital authoritarianism” by proposing new rules earlier this month that could allow the government to demand that internet platforms take down content it deems deceptive or libellous. They may also require the biggest technology companies to install automated screening tools.
Apar Gupta, executive director of the digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, told TRT World that the proposed rules would amount to a constitutional violation that his organisation would challenge in the courts.
“[The rules] are an infringement user privacy and censorship. Both are tools that are authoritarian in nature and not in line with democracy,” he said, adding that the government has ramped up the suppression of online information as India approaches general elections in April and May.
“It is not surprising seeing we’ve seen over the past few months. There has been a gradual decline of online freedoms and a crackdown of the fundamental rights of internet users while their democratic freedoms are being threatened,” he said.
A similar measure also came into effect this year in Vietnam under the guise of a cybersecurity law meant to guard the population from the content it views as “toxic.”
The new rule would, also, require technology giants like Google and Facebook to open offices in the country and provide the communist government with any user data if asked.
In Russia, the draft law would see the installation of network equipment that could ban blocked content and identify the source of web traffic. It would also have a mechanism that would ensure that the internet continues to function in the event of an attack.
"Our strategic goal is to make a breakthrough in terms of improving the quality of life for people, modernising the economy, infrastructure and state governance by using digital technologies in order to become a global development leader," Konstantin Noskov, the minister of digital development, communications and mass media said of the program when it was unveiled in October.
Nevertheless, many are sceptical as Russia has introduced a series of stringent internet laws in recent years. They include measures requiring search engines to delete results and share personal data with the authorities.
Earlier this month, Google came under fire when local news service Vedomosti claimed they had begun to comply with such rules by removing links banned on the Russian government ban list.
Representatives from Google did not reply to a request for comment.
“We must be able to protect the Runet from hostile influences, block them and be ready for it. However, we know the position of many citizens, bloggers, young people who are afraid of any restrictions on the Internet and are pained of any attempts on freedom of the network,” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party told reporters before the lower chamber of parliament passed the legislation on February 12.
Having passed the first of three votes in the lower house, the bill may still be adapted before it reaches the upper house. It would also require the signature of the president before becoming law.
Gainutdinov of Agora International said that while the writing of the bill has thus far been “absolutely not transparent,” he is still holding out hope that it could be passed without the controversial provisions, or that even if it does pass in its current form that it is not enforced.
“We have to wait,” he said. “The adoption of the law does not necessarily mean it will be implemented.”