Russian MPs have approved draft legislation of a controversial bill that critics claim could lead to widespread internet censorship in the country.
The lower house of the Russian parliament passed a second reading of the Digital Economy National Program legislation, which seeks to route Russian web traffic and data through exchange points controlled by the state.
Thousands of people in Moscow and other Russian cities protested the legislation last month, chanting slogans like “hands off the internet” and “stop breaking the Russian internet.”
They argued that the bill will create an internet firewall similar to China, which severely restricts people’s access to the internet. It is unclear what the full impact of the new bill will have on Russian citizens and businesses.
Before coming into effect the bill still needs to be signed by the upper house of the parliament and then by President Vladimir Putin. The second reading of the bill passed by 322-15.
Supporters of the bill claim it is necessary in order to protect the country from state-backed cyber attacks and to ensure Russia can still use the internet even in the event of being cut off from foreign infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Russia announced plans to disconnect itself from the internet for a brief period to test the logistics of separating the local internet, known as the Runet, from the wider internet.
Once separated, the Runet would be entirely under the control of Russia’s telecommunications regulator Roskomnazor. The self-contained system would be immune from any attempts to sever or disrupt it through a cyber attack.
The UK National Cyber Security Centre and other Western agencies have consistently accused Russia of being behind cyber attacks on Western countries. In response, Nato called for an “offensive defence” approach to Russian-backed attacks last year – a proposal backed by UK Foreign Sevretary Jeremy Hunt.
“These cyber attacks serve no legitimate national security interest, instead impacting the ability of people around the world to go about their daily lives free from interference, and even their ability to enjoy sport,” Hunt said in October.
“Our message is clear: together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability.”
Russia’s parliament has also faced criticism for another internet related law, which imposes fines of up to 100,000 roubles (£1,150) to people who show “blatant disrespect” for the state online.
The bill, which Putin signed into law in March, is designed to combat fake news and abusive online comments, however human rights activists have labelled it a declaration against free speech.