Last Friday, Russia’s Duma passed a spate of “anti-terrorism” laws, brought to the floor by hardline MP Irina Yarovaya, significantly toughening Internet and cellular service regulation, which will not only severely curtail the privacy of users, but also financially damage Internet companies. The harshest amendments to the law—allowing the state to revoke the citizenship of, and to deny the right to travel abroad to, those convicted—were dropped at the last minute. The surveillance components of the legislation, however, passed the lower chamber easily.
When the laws pass the Senate and are signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin—a foregone conclusion—cellular companies, including the majors Beeline, MTS, Megaton and Tele2, will have to keep records of all phone calls and text messages made between all their clients for six months. Telecoms are also obliged to keep metadata—information as to who is contacting whom, and when, but not the content of the communications—for three years. The similar rule for the retention of metadata, but only for one year, would apply for “the organizers of information distribution on the internet.” According to another “anti-terrorism” law previously advanced by Yarovaya, the organizers of information distribution on the Internet are not only news media companies but also bloggers whose daily audience exceeds three thousand people.
The largest Russian internet companies, Yandex and Mail.ru, as well as a governmental working group set up to study the bills, criticized the legislation. These criticisms were not taken into account by anybody in the Duma. According to the Vice President of Mail.ru, for example, the unprecedented volume of the data being discussed in the legislation would require all the world’s storage manufacturers to sell their products exclusively to Russia for several years just to store and process everything. Another problem is the lack of adequate electricity infrastructure in Central Russia for the envisioned massive data centers to operate. Experts calculated that building out everything required by the legislation would cost telecom operators and internet companies more then 5 trillion rubles ($75 billion). In comparison, Meduza notes, the total revenues in the Russian federal budget were 13.7 trillion rubles in 2015.
The new legislation also focuses on data encryption. The laws says that if a website, a messaging app, a social network, or an email client encrypts its data, the owners must help the FSB to decipher any text the government asks for. Companies refusing to cooperate will be fined anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million rubles ($12,000 to $15,000). The Russian Constitution explicitly protects the privacy of correspondence, and demands that authorities get a court order in order to gain access. Yarovaya’s law says the siloviki can proceed without any court’s permission.
Many messaging apps today use some form of difficult-to-crack encryption, an important competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded marketplace. The new law would in effect prevent Russian firms from working on developing this technology, but would more importantly put into question foreign companies doing business in Russia. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, all of which have popular messaging apps that are either already encrypted or soon will be, have not yet commented on the new laws.
Among other draconian measures of the Yarovaya legislation are: the criminalization of the failure to report a crime, which will be punishable by up to one year imprisonment; justifying terrorism on social media becomes equal to doing the same in the mass media; tougher punishments will be imposed for “extremism” (this article of the Criminal Code has been used mostly against the Russian political opposition); a new Criminal Code article that outlaws “inducing, recruiting, or otherwise involving” others in the organization of mass unrest, punishable by 5 to 10 years in jail; expanding the criminal liability for adolescents over fourteen; a new criminal act “against international terrorism”; and a law obligating postal companies—which include the Russian Postal Service and all private companies operating in Russia such as FedEx, UPS and DHL—to monitor at their own expense that they aren’t shipping anything illegal.
Ironically, among the most severe critics of the legislation is Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who is hiding from U.S. authorities in Russia for leaking details of the NSA’s programs. He appeared to be urging Vladimir Putin not to approve the laws: “Russia’s new Big Brother law is an unworkable, unjustifiable violation of rights that should never be signed,” he said.