Russia’s government pledged to beef up security of its internet against what senior officials said was an onslaught of western attacks but the plans in turn are heightening western concerns over growing government meddling in the Russian web.
“We need to develop and implement additional measures in the field of information security,” President Vladimir Putin told his security council on Wednesday, adding that “certain countries” were aiming to use their influence on the internet to cripple Russia.
Mr Putin said Moscow did not intend to limit access to the internet, put it under total control, or nationalise it. He was trying to assuage fears that the government would try to install a ‘kill switch’ which could allow it to disconnect the country from the web overnight, as has been done by some governments amid civil unrest.
But the security council made clear that more regulatory steps are on the way. Igor Shchyogolev, a former telecommunications minister who advises Mr Putin on information security, said that a series of tests run by the defence ministry, the federal security service and the communications ministry in July showed that the Russian-language internet was vulnerable, and additional measures were necessary to protect it.
Nikolai Nikiforov, communications minister, said regulators would come up with new rules to ensure that the internet could continue functioning even in the event of external destructive interference, and the country would build back-up infrastructure.
The plans are the latest in new regulations impacting the internet issued over the past 10 months.
Under laws which came into effect in February, the prosecutor-general has been making ample use of new powers to order websites or social media accounts to be blocked without a court order. Two other pieces of new legislation that seek to force all internet companies offering services in Russia to store user data inside the country have raised the pressure on foreign internet companies.
Roskomnadzor, the communications industry regulator, said last week it had sent letters to Google, Facebook and Twitter asking the companies to register in Russia. The demand is understood as preparation for enforcing the data storage requirement.
Internet industry executives said the foreign social media operators had so far tried to delay the impact of the regulations by not building a legal presence in Russia and trying to delay responses to government demands. “But the demands are certainly coming more frequently, and it certainly feels like things will become more difficult,” said one executive.
Mr Putin has claimed before that he does not plan to copy a Chinese-style approach to regulating the web. Regulatory officials have also told the industry privately that they are not bent on cracking down on them and blocking foreign services. However, Mr Putin has also made known his deep wariness of the web, calling it a “project of the CIA”.
Analysts believe that the government’s plans for building back-up infrastructure could impose additional investment burdens on Russian internet companies and telecoms operators.
Despite Mr Putin’s moderate comments, the news from the security council session sent the shares of Russia’s leading internet companies sliding. London-listed shares of Mail.ru, the group of Alisher Usmanov which owns Russia’s Facebook equivalent Vkontakte, were down almost 4 per cent, and shares of Yandex, the Russian search engine company, dropped 1.4 per cent on opening on Nasdaq.
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