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Russian Protesters Rally Against Internet Censorship

Protesters at the March for Free Internet in central Moscow on July 23
Protesters at the March for Free Internet in central Moscow on July 23

MOSCOW -- Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Moscow on July 23 to protest Internet censorship and demand the resignation of the head of Russia's state media regulator.

The protest came amid a broad crackdown on online speech in recent years that rights activists say is targeting legitimate dissent under the pretext of battling extremism.

Organizers of the rally, which received official permission from Moscow authorities, called for the rehabilitation of Internet users convicted for reposting material on social networks.

Protesters also called for the sacking of Aleksandr Zharov, the head of Roskomnadzor, the state agency that plays a central role in regulating online speech.

Demonstrators chanted slogans that included "No to censorship, no to dictatorship!" and "Down with the police state!" They also adapted a slogan against Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently chanted at opposition rallies: "Russia without Putin and censorship!"

The protest came two days after Russia's lower house of parliament passed a bill that would prohibit the use of Internet proxy services, including virtual private networks, or VPNs.

The bill, approved in its third and final reading on July 21, would also ban the anonymous use of mobile messaging services.

It will face a single vote in the upper house before going to Putin, who rarely rejects bills adopted by the Kremlin-controlled legislature.

Sarkis Darbinyan, head of the Center for the Defense of Digital Rights, a Moscow-based advocacy group, said he believes the solid turnout for the rally was driven by "typical Internet users" who are "tired of the volume of crazy laws."

He specifically cited the bill that would ban the use of proxy services and the anonymous use of mobile messaging services.

"This really does create problems for the connectivity of the Russian segment of the Internet and for access to services," Darbinyan told RFE/RL. "I think this is why many citizens truly want to come out and openly state their opposition to such ham-fisted regulation of the Internet."

Police estimated the turnout for the demonstration at around 800 people. Opposition activists frequently accuse authorities of playing down the size of public protests.

OVD Info, a website that monitors detentions of political activists, reported that three people had been detained at the rally -- one for distributing leaflets promoting Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Two of the detainees were released later in the day, OVD Info reported, including the minor reportedly hauled in for the Navalny leaflets.

The Washington-based rights group Freedom House says Internet freedoms continued to slide in Russia last year, and other international watchdogs have criticized the country's treatment of online speech as well.

Russian officials have repeatedly rejected such criticism. Vyacheslav Volodin, the current speaker of the lower house of parliament, said last year that the Internet in Russia is "more free than in the United States."

In one recent high-profile case, a Russian blogger was convicted of inciting hatred and insulting religious believers' feelings with videos he posted on YouTube -- including one showing him playing Pokemon Go in a church.

The blogger, Ruslan Sokolovsky, was handed a 3-1/2 year suspended sentence that was reduced by more than a year earlier this month.

Sokolovsky was also added to an official list of "terrorists and extremists" maintained by Russia's Federal Financial Monitoring Service.

With reporting by AFP and Meduza

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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