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article imageRussian MPs approve anti-terror 'Big Brother' measures

By Maria Antonova (AFP)     Jun 24, 2016 in Politics

Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday approved a raft of anti-terror measures that the opposition called the "Big Brother" law, which may also cost Internet companies billions to store mandated users' data.

In the last session ahead of parliamentary elections in September, lawmakers had to rush through debate so quickly that two normally slavish parties voted against the two bills after being given only a few hours to read them.

Despite the parties' objections, the Duma approved legislation that criminalises failure to report some crimes, lowers the age of criminal responsibility to 14 for a number of offences, and foresees seven years in jail for abetting terrorism online.

A second bill which caused an even bigger stir significantly increases the security service's surveillance prerogatives, with communication providers obliged to store users' calls, messages and data for six months and hand them to "relevant government agencies" when requested.

Social networks also have to store such information for six months, according to the bill, which still has to be approved by the upper house of parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

Companies would have to store users' metadata for one to three years and be prepared to hand over their encryption keys to law enforcement agencies.

The bills, combined into a so-called "anti-terrorist package", were branded as an Orwellian "total surveillance" measure by critics and opposed even by the Communist party.

The Internet industry was not invited to discuss the bills and was perplexed as to how they might be enforced.

"We can say with certainty only that the expenditures of Internet companies will go up," said Asya Melkumova, spokeswoman of Russian Internet giant Yandex, in an emailed statement.

In an editorial published by RBK news agency Thursday, Vladimir Gabrelyan, the chief technology officer of Mail.Ru Group, one of Russia's biggest Internet companies, said that implementing the measures would cost the industry five trillion rubles ($76.8 billion).

- 'Big Brother' bill -

In parliament, even the parties usually keen to rubber-stamp bills put forward by majority party United Russia were appalled at the process used to rush crucial legislation.

"We only got the text today," Communist MP Yury Sinelshikov fumed, adding that his party would vote against it. "I didn't even understand what is in the amendments."

Opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, who termed the bill "Big Brother law", argued that the security services do not have the resources to sort through six months of calls, pictures and text messages.

"The system of recording all calls and creating these databases has nothing to do with fighting terrorism," he said before the bill was approved.

Some observers said the measures were forced out in time before the September parliamentary polls.

"To fight terrorism, existing legislation is more than enough," said political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.

"This is connected with the elections," he said, calling it a "scare tactic for opponents of the regime, in case they get disenchanted with the election process and want to take to the streets."

Andrei Soldatov, co-author of a recent book on Russian Internet surveillance who tracks the country's security agencies, said the authorities "think social networks led to protests", including the mass demonstrations that erupted in 2011 over allegations of rigging in the last parliamentary elections.

He said the Kremlin will use the law as a bargaining chip with Internet companies like Facebook to get them to move their servers to Russia and open local offices -- something Moscow has been trying to do for years.

"The Internet has not been scrubbed, and they are afraid of a repeat of 2011 (protests)," Soldatov said.

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