Kremlin critics, telecom companies and fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden have decried a set of new anti-terrorism measures in Russia that they call an Orwellian encroachment on the privacy and civil freedoms of millions that revives the totalitarian control of the Soviet-era.
The bill would toughen punishment for acts deemed to be terrorism and for the organization of “mass unrest.” It would also introduce prison sentences of up to a year for those who fail to report such crimes. “Justification” of terrorism and extremism — a vaguely-defined category that includes making posts online — would also be punishable by up to seven years in jail under the new legislation.
Courts would be able to charge defendants as young as 14 as adults, and security officers would be entitled without a court ruling to ban individuals from leaving Russia over “extremist” actions, including Internet posts.
The bill, championed by the ruling United Russia party, was hastily voted in by the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, on June 24, the last day of the legislative season. The measure will take effect after it is approved by the upper chamber and President Vladimir Putin. It will go the upper chamber within weeks and is expected to pass without much opposition.
The proposed legislation has been dubbed the “Yarovaya law” after United Russia lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, who engineered the bill and has tabled a series of restrictive measures against opposition groups and foreign-funded NGOs. It was presented in response to the October bombing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt that killed 224.
Opposition and security experts call it some of the most repressive legislation since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing during the 2011 election that formed the current Duma prompted massive anti-Kremlin protests that attracted hundreds of thousands. Since then, the Kremlin has taken on a more isolationist, anti-Western and neoconservative tilt.
“This is an absolutely draconian law, even the Soviet Union did not have such an overwhelmingly repressive legislation," said Gennady Gudkov, an opposition leader and former lawmaker evicted from the Duma for criticizing Putin’s policies. "This is 100% a step toward an Iron Curtain."
Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who fled to Russia in 2013, lambasted the law as an expensive yet ineffective tool that will do little to protect Russians from terrorism.
"Russia's new Big Brother law is an unworkable, unjustifiable violation of rights that should never be signed," he said in a tweet Friday.
“This bill will take money and liberty from every Russian without improving safety,” he said in another tweet.
The Yarovaya law will dramatically expand the Kremlin’s surveillance capabilities by forcing cellular and Internet service providers to store communication data such as voice mail, text messages and multimedia data for six months.
Russian telecom companies say that the law will deprive them of profits and a chance to expand their networks for years to come because of the expense of creating additional data centers. The step may cost up to 6 trillion rubles ($77 billion), according to an estimate by RBC Daily, a business publication.
The bills "put the industry on the brink of collapse," says Shamil Baigin, a spokesman for MTS, one of Russia’s largest cellular-service providers. Service providers may face "degradation of voicemail quality, interruption of text message delivery or faulty web access," he said.
The bills will also force telecom companies to keep metadata such as the locations and dates of phone calls for three years. Providers of email services and encrypted message apps will have to submit decoding keys to Russian authorities.
Pavel Durov, the owner of the popular messaging app Telegram who left the country in 2014, has already refused to provide the encryption keys, Russian media reported.
It is unclear whether Russian authorities will block Telegram, or how they would go about doing it. The app does not require an Internet connection to transfer messages and multimedia attachments.
After being elected president in 2000, Putin has led a crackdown on opposition groups, critics and independent media. His governments have adopted dozens of restrictive measures and continue to expand the list of materials that can be deemed "extremist" — which now includes the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Bible, comments about the Quran and Hindu scriptures, quotes from Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, and texts by prominent Kremlin critics.
In recent years, hundreds of Russians have been convicted and sentenced to up to 5 ½ years in jail for “extremist” publications — in some cases, for posting pro-Ukrainian, anti-Putin or nationalist messages online, according to Sova, a Moscow-based human rights group.
Mirovalev is a special correspondent.