Kremlin crackdown on internet draws thousands to Moscow streets

Russian lawmakers approve Bill to filter web traffic and seal internet from foreign servers

Protesters in central Moscow demand internet freedom. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

Protesters in central Moscow demand internet freedom. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

 

Thousands of people in Moscow demonstrated against against the Kremlin’s increasingly restrictive internet policies on Sunday in one of the biggest protests in the Russian capital in years.

The mass rally came after Russian lawmakers gave approval for a Bill that would allow the authorities to filter online traffic and cut off the country’s internet from foreign servers in the event of a cyberattack.

Critics say the draft legislation will, if adopted, turn the Russian internet into a tightly censored “digital prison”, isolated from the rest of the world.

A huge crowd of mainly young people flocked into Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt square on Sunday to hear internet freedom activists speak and listen to a performance by the IC3PEAK experimental rap band that has faced police repression in recent months.

Demonstrators chanted “Hands off the internet” and “No jailing people for likes and reposts” as well as political slogans criticising Vladimir Putin.

The overwhelming majority of the crowd were young people under 30 who have grown up in the age of the internet.

Potential cyberattacks

“Without the internet our lives will be broken; it will be impossible to work or study or look forward to a good future,” said Mikhail Svetov, a blogger and member of the Russian Libertarian Party, a small opposition group that helped organise the rally. “Russia has been occupied by Russophobes . . . They are turning Russia into a desert.”

Putin has defended the so-called sovereign internet Bill that was approved at a first reading in the Russian parliament last month as a necessary measure to bolster the country’s defence capabilities and allow the internet to continue functioning in the event of a US cyberattack.

However, Kremlin critics see the legislation as the latest step in an intensifying official campaign to clamp down on online freedom of speech and stifle dissent.

In another move to tighten control of the media, the Russian parliament approved laws last week banning journalists and online commentators from showing “blatant disrespect of officials and from spreading information deemed to be ‘fake news’”.

The internet was “the last remaining source of real information and truth” in Russian media, and had to be protected from official censorship, Andrey Nechaev a former Russian economy minister who has become a vocal critic of Kremlin policies since Putin came to power. Recent repressive legislation was only the “first step” in a campaign that, if not stopped, would see the internet reduced to a Soviet-style tool for state propaganda, he told The Irish Times.

Blue balloons

Moscow police estimated about 6,500 people attended the rally on Sunday. However, White Counter, an independent crowd monitoring group, said the turnout topped 15,300, far exceeding organisers’ expectations.

Organisers said police detained eight people before the rally began and removed banners from the stage where speakers addressed the crowd. In an unusual move, law enforcers seized a large number of blue balloons on grounds that an official licence was required to carry “unmanned flying devices” at public meetings.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, posted a photograph on Twitter of police loading a huge bunch of blue balloons into a van. “The best description of Putin’s regime of course is not ‘bloody’ but ‘idiotic’,” he wrote.