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Russians Rally Against Moves To 'Tighten The Screws' On Internet Freedom

The logo of Russian state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor.

Activists in Russia have kicked off demonstrations against a new bill, which its critics say is part of an effort by President Vladimir Putin's government to increase state control over the Internet and facilitate censorship.

Several dozen people rallied in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk on March 10 to protest against the proposed legislation. Backers of the bill say it is designed to ensure the operation of the Internet in the country if access to servers abroad is cut off.

Activists later gathered on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue for a sanctioned rally.

Protest actions were also scheduled in the western city of Voronezh and other Russian cities.

The so-called "sovereign Internet" bill, which passed in the first reading in the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament on February 12, faces two more votes in the State Duma before heading to the upper house.

Aleksandr Isavnin of the Roskomsvoboda movement, one of the organizers of the planned, sanctioned rally on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue, told RFE/RL: “Our state has paid attention to the fact that the Internet is being used to freely exchange information, including by opposition forces, and therefore it wants very much to put it under control.”

The name Roskomsvoboda is short for Russian Freedom Committee and plays off Roskomnadzor, the name of the state communications, Internet, and media oversight agency.

Nikolai Lyaskin, an aide to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, called the bill yet another step by the authorities to "tighten the screws" on Internet freedom, and urged the Russians to rally against “this madness.”

The bill reflects persistent tension between Russia and the West, where governments have accused Moscow of using cyberattacks and social-media activity to sow discord abroad and increase its global clout.

Proponents say it aims to make what they call the Russian segment of the Internet more independent, and argue that the legislation is needed to guard Russia against potential cyberattacks.

The bill calls for the creation of a system that would protect Russia in the event of cyberwar while also filtering Internet traffic to the country, but there has been debate about how realistic that is and how much it would cost.