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U.S. Concerned Russia-Backed UN Resolution Will Hurt Online Freedom

An opposition rally in Moscow on March 10, where protesters raised concerns about Internet censorship.
An opposition rally in Moscow on March 10, where protesters raised concerns about Internet censorship.

WASHINGTON -- The United States said a cybercrime resolution sponsored by Russia is an attempt to push state cyber controls and fears it will pass the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

The UN’s Third Committee approved the Russian resolution on November 18 by a vote of 88 to 58 with 34 countries abstaining. The UN General Assembly is expected to vote on the resolution by December 24.

Belarus, a coauthor of the resolution, China, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, and Indonesia were among the supporters of the bill. The United States, the European Union represented by Finland, Canada, and Japan were among those that voted against it.

The resolution -- Countering The Use Of Information And Communications Technologies For Criminal Purposes -- would create a new cybercrime treaty written by Russia, a country analysts have said is cracking down on Internet freedom at home to stifle opposition to the Kremlin.

“The Russians clearly are interested in pushing their vision of what the Internet should look like in the future, and that’s conflating this idea of cybercrime with cybersecurity and cyber controls,” a State Department official told media on December 19.

Russia wants “a form of lockdown on information” over the Internet and a “curtailment of those freedoms” that the United States stands for, the State Department official said.

The UN General Assembly vote comes less than two months after Russia’s so-called “sovereign Internet” law came into force. The controversial law requires providers to install equipment that could route Russian web traffic through points that are controlled by the state. Critics say “sovereign Internet law” legislation is an attempt to increase censorship.

Pass The UNGA

Washington fears the UN General Assembly will pass the bill because many countries don’t understand the complexities, the official said. Russia has also been lobbying countries for years about the issue.

“On its surface, certainly a cybercrime treaty sounds like a good idea. Who wouldn’t want it? The problem is in trying to explain to those countries not as familiar with this issue set that there are mechanisms already existent and that what the Russians are really driving at is a problematic issue,” the official said.

During the November 18 vote at the United Nations, Russia argued the resolution is necessary because there is a lack of instruments to tackle cybercrime, which it called a national security priority.

The U.S. representative said at the time that Russia’s draft lacked a “reasoned basis” because it had not been based on any report or study. Other anti-crime resolutions are founded on years of preparations by experts while the Russian resolution skipped that process.

Finland’s representative called Russia’s cybersecurity resolution “premature” and reiterated that no preparatory work had been done in the General Assembly while Canada's representative said the international community already has a tool to deal with the problem in the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime.

The representative for Iran -- which recently shut down its Internet for several days amid sometimes-violent protests following a government decision to hike gasoline prices -- called the resolution a timely step.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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

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