Amid pointed questions about costs, intent, and feasibility, Russia's lower house of parliament has given preliminary approval to a bill that backers say is designed to ensure the operation of the Internet in the country if access to servers abroad is cut off.
The legislation, which critics fear is part of an effort by President Vladimir Putin's government to increase state control over the Internet and facilitate censorship, passed in the first of three votes in the State Duma on February 12.
The bill was submitted in December and reflects persistent tension between Russia and the West, where governments have accused Moscow of using cyberattacks and social-media activity to sow discord abroad and increase its global clout.
It calls for Russian web traffic and data to be rerouted through points controlled by the state and for the creation of a domestic Domain Name System to allow the Internet to continue functioning in Russia even if it is cut off from foreign infrastructure.
Proponents say the so-called "sovereign Internet" bill aims to make what they call the Russian segment of the Internet -- known as the Runet -- more independent. They argue that it is needed to guard Russia against potential cyberattacks.
A note attached to the proposed amendments to the Law on Communications cited what it said was the "aggressive nature" of the U.S. cybersecurity strategy released in September 2018, in which, the note said, "Russia directly and without any evidence is accused of cyberattacks."
Media reports on February 11 drew attention to the issue, saying that Moscow plans to temporarily disconnect from the global Internet sometime before April 1 to test its defenses against cyberattacks. No specific date was given, and the reports fueled concerns about state interference into the online activities of citizens.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on the bill on February 12, saying that "expert discussions" were continuing. Both houses of parliament are dominated by the United Russia party, which is loyal to Putin, meaning that passage is ensured if the Kremlin supports a bill, but some legislation is altered between the initial Duma vote and Putin's signature.
The bill was approved in the first reading by a vote of 334-47 in the 450-seat Duma, where it faces two more votes before heading to the upper house.
Russian media reports said that United Russia supported it while the Communist Party, which has the second-largest Duma faction, criticized it. One of the bill's sponsors is Andrei Lugovoi, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), but LDPR chief Vladimir Zhirinovsky said on Telegram that party members would not back it.
The bill calls for the creation of a system that would protect Russia in the event of a cyberwar while also filtering Internet traffic to the country, but there has been debate about how realistic that is and how much it would cost.
The legislation would require the installation of specialized equipment that would make it easier to block websites banned by the government with greater efficiency
Among other things, the bill aims to do the following:
-- Make it possible to minimize the dissemination abroad of information being exchanged by users within Russia.
-- Require providers to submit to the centralization of Internet traffic in the event of a threat.
-- Create infrastructure that would enable Russian sites to operate in the event that access to servers abroad is cut off or restricted.
-- Provide for training and drills that would help key people in the Internet industry and government foresee threats and work out measures to counter them.
LDPR lawmaker Sergei Ivanov sharply questioned whether Russia could make the equipment the bill calls for, reportedly saying: "Russia does not produce any IT hardware, only cables, which some people better hang themselves on."
Lugovoi, one of two Russians suspected in the polonium-poisoning death of Kremlin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in Britain in 2006, cited an alleged U.S. threat as reason for backing the bill.
"This isn't kindergarten!" he shouted, claiming that in the past, "All of the websites in Syria" have been turned off by the United States.
However, Aleksei Kudrin, head of Russia's Audit Chamber and a longtime former finance minister who is close to Putin, tweeted that the bill was adopted in the first reading "too hurriedly and without open dialogue with IT and the industrial community."
Putin has repeatedly said that it is difficult to control the Internet, but the bill has added to concerns that the Kremlin is trying to do just that in hopes of muffling dissent in what could be his final presidential term.
With the state controlling or wielding major influence over broadcast media, in particular national television, the Internet has been used by Kremlin opponents and civil society activists to organize rallies and share opinion.
"This is very serious," the news agency AFP quoted Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov, the co-author of a book on the history of Internet surveillance in Russia, as saying of the bill.
"This is a path towards isolating Russia as a whole...from the Internet," he said.
In March 2018, Putin's then-Internet adviser, German Klimenko, said Russia would be prepared with its own segment of the Internet should Western nations seek to punish it by cutting off all access.
Grigory Pashchenko, a Russian expert who heads the Cyberteam (Kiberdruzhina) volunteer network, a group which says it is working to root out posts deemed extremist in line with the government's campaign to increase oversight of the Internet, told RFE/RL that the government already has a blueprint for a sovereign Internet.
Pashchenko, however, said the actual launch of a sovereign Internet is decades away.
“We’re sure that a [sovereign Internet] is possible, but this’ll be a long and expensive process,” he said.
Russia has been accused of carrying out cyberattacks and of using the Internet -- particularly social networks such as Facebook and Twitter -- to attempt to sow discord and interfere in elections in the West.
In response, social networks have been aggressively seeking out so-called “troll farms” that use deceptive accounts to spread false information.