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Russian President Vladimir Putin's (center) critics and civil-liberties activists have long accused the authorities of using counterterrorism and extremism laws to target the Kremlin's political opponents, and they say the new law threatens a dramatic escalation of this strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law contentious counterterrorism legislation that opposition activists and rights advocates have denounced as unconstitutional and a blunt tool to suppress dissent.

The law, which Putin's ruling United Russia party has championed, includes measures toughening punishment for extremism and terrorism, increases the state's surveillance capabilities, and criminalizes failure to inform the authorities about certain crimes.

It also boosts state access to private communications, requiring telecom companies to store all telephone conversations, text messages, videos, and picture messages for six months and make this data available to the authorities.

Encrypted messaging services such Skype, Telegram, and WhatsApp, meanwhile, are required under the law to provide an encryption key to authorities.

The law also increases the number of crimes that 14-year-olds can be prosecuted for and restricts the activity of religious preachers.

Putin's critics and civil-liberties activists have long accused the authorities of using counterterrorism and extremism laws to target the Kremlin's political opponents, and they say the new law threatens a dramatic escalation of this strategy.

Telecom and Internet companies, meanwhile, have warned that they face a massive increase in costs in order to comply with the law that will be passed on to consumers in the form of price hikes.

Sergei Soldatenkov, CEO of the mobile provider Megafon, said in an interview published on July 7 in the Russian daily Kommersant that the new law would require the firm to spend four times its annual profit to ensure it met the data-storage requirement.

Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker in Russia's lower house of parliament, wrote sarcastically on Twitter that Putin's enactment of the law had brought about "a wonderful new world with expensive Internet, prison for children, and global surveillance."​

The law was also denounced by arguably the world's most famous opponent of state surveillance, Edward Snowden, a former U.S. security contractor whom Russia has granted asylum and the United States wants to prosecute for leaking a trove of classified materials.

Snowden wrote on Twitter on July 7 that Putin's signing of the new law marked a "dark day for Russia." He added that that he feared "retaliation" for his criticism but that he would not let this stop him from speaking out.

Amid widespread criticism of the law -- including from the head of the Kremlin's own human rights commission -- Putin's spokesman said on July 7 that the Russian president had tasked the government to monitor "how this law is implemented" and take measures if there are "undesirable" consequences.

With reporting by AFP and TASS

Amnesty International has accused Belarus authorities of using phone networks run by some of the world’s biggest telecoms companies to stifle free speech and dissent.

In a report, published on July 7, the rights watchdog documents what it describes as the authorities’ potentially limitless, round-the-clock, unchecked surveillance that has a debilitating effect on activists and journalists.

It makes basic work, such as arranging a meeting over the phone, a risk for activists, says the report, titled "It’s enough for people to feel it exists: Civil society, secrecy and surveillance in Belarus."

“In a country where holding a protest or criticizing the president can get you arrested, even the threat that the authorities are spying on you can make the work of activists next to impossible,” said Joshua Franco, technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty International.

The report says companies, including ones owned by Telekom Austria Group and Turkcell, allow this to happen by granting the government nearly unlimited access to their customers’ communications and data.

It points out that operating in Belarus requires giving the government access to all their users’ phone and internet communications.

“So if the KGB, for example, wants to spy on them, they don’t need to show a warrant, they don’t need to ask the company to give them access,” said Franco.

Amnesty International called on telecoms companies to challenge such laws to protect their customers’ privacy.

Franco said the future of online freedom in Belarus depends on “whether telecoms companies challenge governments who overstep the bounds of privacy and free speech, or meekly comply with them to protect their profit margins.”

The report also urged the companies to inform their customers in Belarus that their data will be available to the authorities at any time.

It also called on the Belarusian government to create checks and balances for surveillance practices to bring them in line with international human rights standards.

Amnesty International says the report is based on interviews with more than 50 human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, political opposition members, technology experts and others, either in Belarus or in exile.

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