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Russian internet freedom protests
via Twitter (@Kyruer)

Thousands protest for internet freedom in Russia

‘Hands off the internet’

Thousands of people joined protests on the streets of Moscow to demonstrate against policy that would stifle internet freedom.

Last month, lawmakers in Russia backed legislation that would instill tighter controls on the internet, reportedly because it would stop foreign intrusion in politics and improve cybersecurity. The bill would stop Russia’s internet traffic from routing through foreign services, isolating it from the rest of the world. Campaigners have condemned the bill as a ploy to curb political activism and censor Russian people.

Protests broke out in Moscow and three smaller areas of Russia. According to Reuters and the NGO White Counter, 15,000 people attending the demonstrations, where activists spoke about digital rights. A reported 15 people were detained at the Moscow event, where banners and other ephemera were confiscated.

“The government is battling freedom, including freedom on the internet, I can tell you this as somebody who spent a month in jail for a tweet,” Sergei Boiko, an internet freedom activist from Siberia, said at the rally.

The crowds chanted ‘hands off the internet’ and ‘no to isolation’. 

In recent years, Russia has attended to restrict internet discourse. Authorities attempted to shut down encrypted messaging service Telegram last year, which sparked major protests and condemnation from activists like Pussy Riot. Last week, two bills were passed that outlawed ‘disrespect’ of authorities and ‘fake news’ as defined by the government. 

Speaking to Dazed, people from across Russia expressed their concern for the prospective restrictions on internet freedom and expression. “The Internet has always helped me in my creative self expression,” says Nick Gavrilov, a photographer and stylist based in St Petersburg. “It is very convenient to communicate with people who are thousands of kilometres away from you. A lot of magazines based in other countries and the Internet helps me to cooperate with them, and of course, the global network gives you an opportunity to share your art with people.

“We have networks like VK (Russian analog version of Facebook) to communicate with people in Russia – it is easier in use than FB, but you can’t connect with people internationally.

Gavrilov continues: “Since childhood, we are accustomed to the internet and the flow of information that came to us. I can’t imagine my life without it. I think that I wouldn’t have become a photographer if it were not for the internet, which showed me the works of such artists as Juergen Teller, Nan Goldin, Harley Weir. I watched what was happening in the world, and now we are blindfolded. And if this law somehow negatively affects my work and my art, I will be forced to leave the country. But still, in my heart lives the hope that people who work in the government will come to their senses and realise that they are making a mistake. Information cannot be controlled.” 

The ‘digital sovereignty’ bill will have a second vote in parliament, expected to happen later in March. If it passes parliament, Russian president Vladimir Putin will then have to sign it into law.