The Russian legislature's lower house on Wednesday adopted a bill that, according to tech companies in the country, could lead to Internet censorship.
The bill, which includes amendments to several current laws, still needs to be signed and in the meanwhile Russian tech companies continue to protest the legislation, trying to influence the political process before the bill is formally adopted by the upper house.
The bill passed by Russia's lower house, the State Duma, aims to make it easier to block sites that host child pornography, promote drugs or provide instructions about how to commit suicide. But the Russian IT industry sees a basis for Internet censorship because it is unclear how the blocking procedure will work.
The industry is mainly protesting the bill because the State Duma has proposed to block websites through IP and DNS blockades.
Despite approval of the law, Wikipedia Russia, the initiator of the protests that decided to block access to its own site in protest Tuesday, is mildly positive.
"Our protests had an effect," said Vladimir Medeyko, director of the Russian Wikimedia foundation, in an email. Although the protest did not have the same effect as the online upheaval against SOPA in the U.S. (the bill was put on ice), there nevertheless was an impact, Medeyko said.
Even though the bill was passed by the State Duma, several significant amendments were introduced the night before the vote, Medeyko said. The definition of illegal content became much clearer, and the list of authorities who may decide which sites can be blacklisted became shorter, he said. The FSB, Russia's successor of the KGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, were excluded from the list, he said. According to the latest draft of the law, Rostelecom, Russia's state-controlled telecommunications operator, is the only non-government body that can blacklist parts of Russia's Internet, said Medeyko.
In addition, the legislators agreed to include representatives of Wikipedia's parent organization, Wikimedia, in the working group overseeing the bill and its implementations, Medeyko said. This was a breakthrough, he said, since members of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC), an NGO that represents the Russian IT industry, were rejected at an earlier stage.
However, representatives from RAEC, and possibly also Wikimedia representatives, are to be included in a working group from the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media that will look at possible amendments to the law, Medeyko said.
He also emphasized that several key state officers, including Russian premier Dmitry Medvedev, explicitly stated that the Internet in Russia will remain "a territory of freedom," he said.
Not everyone is convinced, though. Russia's biggest search engine, Yandex, said the last-minute changes were minimal.
The only thing the Duma changed after the first reading last Friday is that they removed a paragraph stating that IP addresses can be blocked without a court order, said Vladimir Isaev, manager of international media relations at Yandex, in an email. He added that the online protection of children is an obvious value of a civil society, but said that the protection of fundamental constitutional principles such as freedom of speech or the right of access to information are also important.
The proposed law still leaves the opportunity to blacklist whole domains when only part of the hosted content is illegal, said Alla Zabrovskaya, public relations director of Google Russia in a blog post. Today, 1.3 million blogs hosted on Blogger are still blocked in Russia as a result of a court ruling that ordered a block on access to extremist blog posts, Zabrovskaya wrote. Once Google became aware of the existence of the material it was removed, he said. However, the Russian telecommunications operator that blocked the IP address in accordance with the court's decision continues to limit access to the entire service, he added.
In another lawsuit, in July 2010, the district court of Komsomolsk-na-Amur ordered a local Internet provider to block the entire YouTube domain because the court deemed one of the hosted movies illegal, Zabrovskaya said. "Until now these were isolated cases, but when this law enters into force, this practice may become the norm," he said, adding that the first group that will suffer from this law is the Russian Internet user, who could be denied access to legal content.
Google is convinced that there are better ways to combat illegal content than those offered in the law. "We look forward to a constructive dialogue between legislators, representatives of industry and user community to jointly develop effective methods of protecting Internet users that do not restrict access to legal information and do not obstruct the development of the Internet in Russia," Zabrovskaya said.
The bill accepted by the Duma has to be approved by Russia's upper house and then by the president, Yandex's Isaev said. "Yandex was always ready to discuss the bill before it came to the Duma and we are ready to do that in case the parliament or any other authority will ask us to be involved as an industry expert," he said.
Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org