Putin foes fear Internet crackdown as 'blogger law' sails through

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russia's upper house of parliament approved a law on Tuesday that will impose stricter rules on bloggers and is seen by critics as an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to stifle dissent on the Internet.

The Federation Council overwhelmingly approved the tighter controls on Russian blogs and websites that attract more than 3,000 daily visits, under legislation the government says is needed to formalise the definition of blogging in Russian law.

Opponents say the law will enable Putin to silence opponents who are rarely given air time on the mostly state-controlled or pro-Putin television channels, and have instead used the Internet to organise protests against the former KGB spy.

"The new policy is to restrict free information exchange, restrict expression of opinion, be it in written text, speech or video. They want to restrict everything because they're headed towards the 'glorious past'," Anton Nosik, a prominent Russian blogger and online media expert, told Reuters.

"China is much more liberal than what Russia wants to achieve," he said, describing the move as unconstitutional.

The pressure group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) said the law was an attempt to increase control of online content.

The State Duma lower house has already backed the law and it now needs Putin's signature to go into force. Both chambers are dominated by the United Russia party loyal to the president.

The new rules will require popular bloggers to register by name with Russia's communications oversight agency and conform to regulations on the mass media.

The Kremlin denies allegations of censorship or pressure on the media and says Russians have the right to express their opinions and stage protests.

But Putin has described the Internet as a CIA project and parliament has approved moves requiring social media websites to keep their servers in Russia and save information about users for at least six months.

With 61 million users, Russia is Europe's fastest-growing Internet audience, according to a 2013 report by industry body comScore, and blogs have been seen by Putin's opponents as one of the few popular platforms beyond the Kremlin's reach.

The editor of a popular Internet news site, Lenta.ru, was dismissed this year and independent TV Dozhd has gone off the air. The head of VKontakte, Russia's answer to Facebook, has been ousted and fled the country.

The government has also blocked access to the Internet sites of Kremlin critics Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov because they "contained calls for illegal activity".

Navalny was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin protests of 2011-12, which were organised largely through social media sites and blogs. Navalny has further used his own blog to highlight state corruption and undermine United Russia in a campaign that helped establish him as an opposition leader.

Russia's leading blog platform, LiveJournal, appears to be standing up to the new rules.

The day after the blogging law was approved by the lower house, LiveJournal director Dmitry Pilipenko said the site would no longer display the number of subscribers a blog had if the figure exceeded 2,500.

Pilipenko said "all coincidences are accidental" but the timing of the announcement means many have seen the decision as a bid to protect LiveJournal's users. The decision followed a similar move by Russia's biggest search engine Yandex.

These steps will not stop Russia's media watchdog monitoring popular bloggers as it can obtain information on readership statistics independently, Roscomnadzor head Alexander Zharov said.

"LiveJournal and Yandex's move to hide blog statistics is just an emotional decision," local media quoted Zharov as saying.

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