Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), and Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) days in Russia may be numbered. Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, passed a bill banning online services that do not store Russian data on Russian soil. If this bill becomes law, some of the world’s largest technology firms would find themselves online outlaws.
The bill’s requirement that data originating in Russia must be stored in Russia is just the beginning. For the data to leave Russia, government approval would be required after it is ensured that the data will remain secure. The bill would affect any foreign online service, which includes social media, websites, and even apps. It could potentially block out parts of the Internet in Russia.
As a possible restriction on Internet access, comparisons to China’s Internet Great Wall have come up. TechCrunch made this point as a part of its coverage of the bill, calling Russia’s efforts “China-like.” China regularly restricts access to certain parts of the Internet through the use of government censors that block websites like Twitter and requests that online services block certain content. China recently effectively blocked Google for days on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The Russian bill would block access to any website without a Russian server starting in September 2016, if it becomes law. The bill still has to pass in the Federation Council, the higher legislative branch of the Russian government, and be signed into law by the president, who must sign it within 14 days and do it publicly. The English-language, pro-West newspaper The Moscow Times has a detailed version of how a Russian bill becomes law.
The news outlet also published a report about the bill when it was first introduced to the State Duma. It included criticism from the head of the Russian Internet Communication Association and mentioned that Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor is curtailing access to parts of the Internet in Russia. The New York Times reported in March 2013 that Russian authorities were beginning to crack down on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, requesting that some content be removed.
The Russian bill is only the latest in a trend. Blocking the Internet is increasingly becoming a move used by governments as a way to control the flow of information and to suppress the ability of dissenters to organize. Turkey recently blocked Twitter for a brief period until its highest court overturned the ban. Considering that the Arab Spring protests were largely organized using social media, governments have good reason to fear the Internet.
Despite the possible restrictions on the Internet ahead, plenty of loopholes still exist, as evidenced by savvy Internet users in China and elsewhere where Internet access is restricted. Virtual private networks (VPNs) can mask a computer’s true location, increasing access to restricted materials, and slang can hide the true meaning of a social media message.