Russia's new law: the beginning of the end for Facebook and Twitter?

Moscow says it will enforce a law passed this week that could ban major global Internet companies from operating in Russia if they don't store data on Russian servers, and share it with the government if asked.

Illustration by Jacob Turcotte/The Christian Science Monitor
A new law could lead to the banning of Facebook, Google, and Twitter on Russian soil.

Russia's official communications watchdog says it will enforce a new law that could lead to the banning of Facebook, Google, and Twitter on Russian soil. 

The law, passed Wednesday, requires global Internet companies to store the data of their Russian users on local servers, and to retain that information for six months in case Russian authorities want to access it. Failure to comply with the new measures will result in "administrative penalties" that could lead to the ban of those services from Russia, according to the Moscow daily Izvestia.

Critics see the new measures as part of a Kremlin-backed offensive aimed at crushing the last bastions of free speech, and cutting off Russians' remaining connections with the wider world – a charge Moscow supporters say masks the real issue of the West allegedly waging an "information war" to discredit Russian policies. 

The Internet data law comes on top of two years of ever-toughening legislation to curb dissent, civil society action, and independent media. Among the fresh wave of laws is one that would limit foreign ownership of any media outlet to 20 percent and a proposal to install a Kremlin-controlled "kill switch" for the Internet, to be employed in the event of crisis.

"This is all part of a campaign to 'cleanse' the Russian Internet of everything objectionable to the authorities," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow. "It demonstrates that our leaders are scared of free speech."

Russia must 'be prepared' 

But supporters of tougher media and Internet controls argue that Russia is under attack from outside, with Western countries piling on sanctions and discrediting Moscow's policies. 

"A fair share of unpredictability has arisen in the recent actions of our partners in the US and Europe, and we must be prepared for all situations," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the independent Interfax agency last week. 

"We know [who] the main administrator of the global Internet is," he added, meaning the US. "And due to this unpredictability, we have to think about how to ensure our own national security."

According to Izvestia, the official communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has sent out warnings to big Internet firms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, demanding they comply with the law by registering as "organizers of information distribution."          

The most controversial parts of the law will require companies to store all Russian users' data on Russia-based servers, preserve all such data for six months, make the data available to Russian authorities upon demand, and force any user with more than 3,000 followers to register as a "media outlet" liable to censorship.

Full implementation?

Internet experts say they are unsure whether the law will be implemented in its full force, since it could result in Russia being completely cut off from the global Internet. Not only would big social media companies be affected, but even making an airline or hotel reservation, or using an international credit card, could become impossible for Russians if the companies involved declined to maintain their servers on Russian territory.

"I know that big firms like Google have been negotiating with the Russian government about this, and it's my impression that they might be willing to meet the law halfway," says Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst for the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (ROEK), an industry coalition.

"I doubt that they're prepared to maintain their servers in Russia, but they could be willing to keep mirror images of the data for six months, and make other concessions," Mr. Kazaryan adds. "I hope they'll find some sort of middle ground."

According to statistics provided by ROEK, Google currently has about 30 million users in Russia, Facebook around 20 million, and Twitter about 5 million.

Those numbers pale in comparison to the 90 million users boasted by Russia's leading search engine Yandex, or the 220 million accounts claimed by Russia's top social media site VKontakte.  

If foreign firms are driven out of the Russian market, those companies are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries, say experts. 

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