A new law that came into force in Russia yesterday will tighten government control of the internet, one of the few remaining media outlets where people can express anti-Kremlin views.
Russian regulators say the new rules are needed to make the internet a safer place and prevent the online broadcast of extremist slogans, child pornography, illegal advertisements, obscenities and slang.
However, rights activists have slammed the law as an attack on free of speech that will be used to silence critical voices.
Under the new legislation, bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers must register and provide the authorities with personal data. Publishing unverified information is now out of bounds as the internet is brought in line with rules governing Russia’s mainstream media. Violators of the so-called bloggers law could face fines of up to 50,000 rubles (€1,053) and risk being blacklisted, according to Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media watchdog.
Internet companies will be required to allow the authorities access to users’ data, and to store information on Russian territory.
Vladimir Putin has until recently felt safe to ignore the internet even as tighter controls were imposed on mainstream media that now tends to reflect the Kremlin's position on all matters of national importance.
However Kremlin attitudes hardened after a wave of anti-government protests erupted in Moscow in the months leading up to the Russian president's inauguration to a third term in 2012. As elsewhere in the world, Russian opposition activists have used social networking sites to rally support and call demonstrators out onto the streets.
Kremlin wariness of online discourse also has an international dimension. In April, Mr Putin said the internet was a “special project” of US intelligence and had been created by the CIA.
At the same time, he suggested that
, Russia’s most successful internet company, was controlled by foreigners.
The Russian internet is already at the mercy of a new law that came into force in February empowering the authorities to block websites deemed to contain “extremist” content, calls for mass riots or participation in unsanctioned public gatherings even without first receiving a court order.
Roskomnadzor has blacklisted the blogs of a number of prominent opposition activists, including Gary Kasparov, the Russian chess champion, and Alexei Navalny, who made his name blogging about state corruption. Grani.ru, a news and analysis website known for its anti-Kremlin stance, has also been closed down.