Russia poised to restrict Net activities

MOSCOW--Russia's parliament may give final approval this week to sweeping restrictions on using the Internet to oppose the government.

At the request of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Duma voted 272 to 126 last week in favor of the offline and online restrictions as an immediate response to what Putin called a spate of pro-Nazi and anti-religious extremist activities.

Russia's actions come as U.S. law enforcement is seeking expanded powers to monitor Web activity.

Last month, U.S. Justice Department and FBI officials announced new guidelines that would allow agents to mine publicly available databases and Web sites for information, even if they're not conducting a specific investigation. The move would relax guidelines set in the 70's that sought to prevent tracking or compiling dossiers on people based on their religious or political activities.

And the U.S. Patriot Act, passed just weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, granted law enforcement unprecedented powers to monitor Internet communications.

The Russian measure, which could receive final approval in the Duma as early as this week, pitted Putin and his supporters against the members of Russia's nascent human rights community who decried the anti-extremism bill as a perilous expansion of police power. Also opposed to the Draft on Contravention of Extremist Activities were members of the Communist Party, who feared they could be targeted as illegal extremists.

"It is true that in Russia nowadays, there are many cases of extremism based on religious and national background," Sergei Kovalev, a member of the 450-person Duma, said in an interview. "But the declared purpose of this bill has nothing to do with the true purpose.

"This version of the bill still allows the ability to prevent Internet activities without any necessity," said Kovalev, a 72-year old civil libertarian and member of the liberal "soyuz peravikh sil" faction.

Kovalev cited the portion of the bill that says it is "forbidden to use computer networks for extremism" and pledges a vague punishment that may "take into consideration" existing Russian criminal laws.

Another section says the Justice Ministry, the Press Ministry or public prosecutors may shut down any for-profit, nonprofit or religious organization deemed extremist without first obtaining a court order. All Russian print and broadcast media outlets are required to register with the government.

Probably the most vocal criticism aimed at the legislation targets its 11-part definition of extremist activity, which in part echoes current prohibitions on terrorism, forcible overthrow of the government, and inciting riots or racial strife. It also adds new bans on some public demonstrations, the use of extremist symbols, and any activity or publication that could threaten the "safety" of Russia.

Vladimir Pekhtin, leader of President Putin's "unity" faction, told the Web site, "The most important thing is that the new bill sets the goal of fighting extremism activities. Thus, it outlaws not only ideas but the actions of persons and organizations threatening the rights and civil liberties of our citizens and the entire constitutional order in Russia."

Pekhtin cited examples such as mass brawls staged by football fans, attacks on foreign visitors and an incident earlier this month near Moscow when an anti-Semitic sign was booby-trapped to explode, injuring a woman who tried to remove it.

Victor Naumov, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University's law school, said it's difficult to estimate what impact the anti-extremism bill would have.

"In this law, there are many blanks," said Naumov, who edits the site. "For instance, it says that a state organization could temporarily interrupt the operation of a nonprofit organization--without any definition of which state organization."

Under Russian law, a proposed law must be read in the Duma three times before it is approved and forwarded to the second chamber of parliament, the Sovet Federatsii, which may send it to the president for his signature.

On Thursday, the anti-extremism proposal received its second reading in the Duma, which deleted one controversial Internet regulation. The earlier draft said Web site administrators, including those living in nations not subject to Russian law, must delete material at the request of a Russian prosecutor.

"What we see is an attack on the Internet. This part of the draft was withdrawn. But it doesn't mean that the bill has become better," said Lev Levinson, an activist at the Moscow-based Institute for Human Rights who tracks legislation in the Duma.

Human rights activists predict the broad definition of extremist behavior will imperil legitimate activities such as Greenpeace protesters or anti-war Web sites.