Russian lawmakers approve second reading of 'sovereign' Internet bill

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian lawmakers backed tighter Internet controls on Thursday to defend against foreign meddling, in a preliminary vote on draft legislation that critics say could disrupt Russia’s Internet and be used to stifle dissent.

FILE PHOTO: The coat of arms of Russia is reflected in a laptop screen in this picture illustration taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Shrugging off an outcry from opposition politicians and rights activists, the 450-seat lower chamber of parliament voted in a second reading to pass a largely unchanged version of the bill that aims to beef up Russia’s Internet “sovereignty”.

The legislation aims to route Russian web traffic and data through points controlled by state authorities and to build a national Domain Name System to allow the Internet to continue working even if Russia is cut off from foreign infrastructure.

The bill’s authors say the measures are needed to defend the country after the United States adopted what they described as aggressive new U.S. cyber security policies last year.

The United States has accused Russia itself of meddling in its 2016 presidential election, an allegation denied by Moscow.

The legislation also proposes installing network equipment that would be able to identify the source of web traffic and also block banned content. It is expected to make the authorities more effective at blocking sites.

Russia banned the Telegram instant messaging service and moved last year to block it, but the attempt failed and the service is still popular and widely used.

If the measures are passed in a final third reading by parliament and approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin, they will become law and enter force on Nov. 1.

The Agora human rights group warned in February that the legislation was one of several new bills drafted in December that “seriously threaten Internet freedom”.

Stanislav Shakirov, an activist at the Roskomsvoboda group, said he believed the bill was the latest in a series of moves by authorities to clamp down on the Internet following Arab Spring uprisings and the revolution in neighboring Ukraine in 2014.

“This law fits perfectly into this picture of restricting the Internet in order to stay in power.”

Russia has introduced tougher Internet laws in the last five years, requiring search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services and social networks to store user data on servers in the country.

Reporting by Andrey Kuzmin and Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by