Online freedom in Russia is getting worse and worse and the latest laws being considered by the Russian Parliament look set to lead to a further deterioration.
They are currently pushing through legislation that would force all computers and mobile devices sold in Russia to come with a series of pre-installed applications which would pose a massive threat to users online security and privacy.
The downturn in online rights in Russia
It feels like we have been writing about Russia a lot of late. Only last week, we reported on how the country had begun testing their so-called RuNet system which would empower the Putin regime to disconnect Russia from the global internet.
Earlier in the year, they threatened a number of leading VPNs with being blocked if they refused to comply with the country’s onerous censorship regime (only Kaspersky VPN complied). This censorship has also spiralled in the past couple of years.
Now the Russian Duma (lower parliament) is considering a law which it is claimed would protect Russian technology against competition from overseas tech companies.
“The initiative provides domestic companies with legal mechanisms to promote their programs for Russian users,” the Duma has explained as it shamelessly justifies its protectionist agenda.
But protectionism is the least of the Russian people’s concerns if this law makes it onto the statute books. Compelling devices to come pre-installed with domestic apps offers the Putin regime a wonderful opportunity to spy on every single Russian internet user and punish those who deviate from its exacting regulations.
The risk of backdoors
If apps from domestic tech companies come pre-installed on all devices, it would be relatively simple for the Russian authorities to engineer these apps to contain backdoors and other secret functions.
These could potentially allow intelligence agencies to access data from these devices at their leisure, spy on what every Russian citizen is doing online, and even censor content in real-time.
This could include monitoring which Russian citizens are using VPNs and other security tools which allow them to circumvent the government’s existing laws and well as enforcing the country’s overbearing censorship regime.
Rachel Denber, the Deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch has condemned the plans. “This jeopardizes the right of people in Russia to free speech and freedom of information online,” she said.
“Now the government can directly censor content or even turn Russia’s internet into a closed system without telling the public what they are doing or why.”
The proposals are almost certain to become law in the next twelve months. Russia’s Duma is heavily weighted in favour of the Putin regime and this proposal has the backing of every major party that sits in it.
While Russia is still notionally a democracy, opposition against any policy put forward by the Putin regime is rare and always swiftly cracked down on when it emerges. No matter how unpopular this latest proposal might be with the Russia people, we are unlikely to see protestors or any other significant forms of dissent.
The likely impact of the new law
When the new law does come into force, it is likely to affect almost every internet-enabled device capable of running apps that is sold in Russia. Desktop and laptop computers, tablets, smartphones, and even smart TVs are expected to fall under its scope.
Any companies within Russia that refuse to comply with the law are expected to face a fine of 200,000 rubles. That is just US$3,100 which isn’t much of an incentive. But those that repeatedly fail to comply could be banned from selling products in Russia altogether.
There is already speculation that the new laws could force Apple to leave the Russian market entirely while a number of other international device manufacturers are also likely to consider a similar move.
The question of how Russian citizens might react to the new law is difficult to gauge at this early stage. Those who oppose the Putin regime, especially those who campaign for human rights or try to practice independent journalism, will no doubt be deeply concerned.
One solution for some will be to travel overseas to purchase their electronic devices. What regulations the Russian regime might put in place to prevent this is not clear at the moment but it seems likely that electronics stores just across the border from Russia will see an upturn in business when the new laws come into force.
But for many Russia’s this option will not be feasible and for them, a black market in devices stripped of all official apps seems likely to develop.
For those who do have no choice but to use Russian-bought devices, the future looks pretty bleak. Anyone spotted accessing censored content or using VPNs and other prohibited apps is likely to face severe repercussions.
The new law is another nail in the coffin of online freedom in Russia. But given the current trend, it seems unlikely to be the last.