MOSCOW – Russian telecommunications companies are lobbying Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to restrict the use of Skype and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software that makes long-distance calling free or at most cost pennies.
But unlike other countries where phone companies have tried to ban the pesky new technology on grounds of unfair competition, such as Germany, Russian corporations have an additional argument they think will appeal to a national security-conscious Kremlin. They warn that the foreign-made VoIP software, easily downloaded from the Internet, is a threat to national security because it is resistant to eavesdropping by Russia's intelligence agencies.
The growing use of these programs by Russian citizens "without any control by the state is unavoidably leading to fears about security problems," says a statement by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, the country's leading business lobby, quoted in the Internet daily Gazeta.ru. "The majority of brands operating in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are of foreign origin and therefore we need to ensure the defense of national producers in this sector," it went on.
Skype, which was developed in Estonia but is now owned by the Internet giant eBay, has been growing by leaps and bounds. According to the Russian telephone lobby, VoIP could account for as much as 40 percent of telecom traffic in Russia by 2012.
The lobbying group said in its statement that it was working with the United Russia Party, the dominant parliamentary group headed by Mr. Putin, to craft legislation that will address national security and commercial concerns that arise from the US of internet calling technologies.
Valery Yermakov, deputy director of Megafon, one of Russia's largest telephone companies, insists that it's simply a matter of "civilizing" an otherwise wild and unregulated market. "We are ready to take an active part in working out the legal norms of VoIP activity in Russia in order to offer clients high-quality and acceptable communication," he says.
"We are absolutely convinced that this work has to be done in cooperation with all interested sides including foreign VoIP operators, consumers' organizations and state organs," he adds.
But experts say the key concern of Russian telecommunications companies is to limit competition, especially on lucrative cellphone networks, but the national security argument is the one most likely to sway lawmakers when Russia's Duma reconvenes in September.
"In Russia all Internet providers already need to install special equipment that enables the surveillance activities of the security services," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal that reports on the secret services. "So the issue is not to ban Skype, but to force users or providers to install this," either by introducing a Russian-made program or compelling national Internet providers to expand their equipment to monitor VoIP communications, he explains.
Some Russian human rights experts argue that the proposed curbs on Internet conversations are part of a much wider crackdown on free speech and pluralistic politics in Russia that has gone largely unreported in the Western media. They insist there is a growing pattern that includes new legislation that makes it harder to organize citizen groups, an anonymous terror campaign against human rights activists, and efforts to expand the definition of "extremism" to include thousands of peaceful and law-abiding members of the opposition.
"Due to the economic crisis, the authorities are preparing to deal with possible revolutionary situations," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with the Movement For Human Rights, a Russian grassroots group. "Our police forces are starting to act a lot like their counterparts in Soviet times, 70 years ago," he says.