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A new law which makes it mandatory for companies to store personal data on Russian citizens on local servers has sparked fears, as critics say it gives the government easy access to sensitive data.
Russian authorities say the law is there to help secure data by Russian citizens in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's allegations of widespread spying. However, critics have said it raises serious privacy concerns, as the law makes it easier for the Russian government to spy on its own citizens.
"Nobody asked them to protect personal data of Russian citizens, it was always a government initiative," said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who covers Russia's intelligence agencies and who co-authored the book "The Red Web" on the Internet in Russia.
Backdoor access to citizens' data?
"We have a nationwide system of surveillance of the Internet and we have special legislation about surveillance on the Internet. And this legislation requires all Russian Internet Service Providers to provide direct and unrestricted access - backdoors - for the Russian security services," he told DW.
"So if global platforms were to decide to relocate their service to Russia, it would mean that Russian security services would immediately get access to data of these global platforms," he added.
That view is echoed by Laura Reed, a research analyst for Freedom Houses' Freedom on the Net department. "There's evidence that the government has been using [its] surveillance capabilities to target human rights activists and opposition figures," she told DW.
So far, it's unclear whether companies have indeed agreed to move personal data about Russian citizens to servers on Russian soil. Russia's media watchdog Roskomnadzor announced it would be checking some 300 companies this year, but told DW in an email that search giant Google and social media platform Facebook would not be part of that group.
'System based on intimidation'
"The idea of this law is not immediate implementation. The idea of the legislation is to have something at hand to put more pressure on the Internet in Russia and specifically on global platforms," Soldatov said. "The Russian system of managing the Internet is based on intimidation."
The Kremlin had invited companies for talks, he added. "And the Kremlin was quite successful. Over the last two years, all three [major] companies - Twitter, Facebook and Google - sent their high representatives to Moscow for secret talks with the Kremlin."
Meanwhile, Facebook has reportedly told officials it would not comply with the new law, whereas Google reportedly moved some servers to Russia.
Facebook declined to comment and Google did not respond to interview requests. A Twitter spokesperson sent a link to a Roskomnadzor statement saying that federal censors don't consider the kind of user data Twitter collects as personal information under the law.
A move that's indeed surprising, says Freedom House's Reed, "because Twitter is a company the government has pressured in the past". Just last year, she recalled, the Russian government requested that anyone who had more than 3,000 followers had to register their real name with the government.
"With laws like this, the fear is that the government will use it selectively," she added.
'Constructive conversations' with Facebook
In a recent interview with Russian online newspaper Lenta, Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov confirmed that the watchdog had met with representatives of Twitter and Facebook, but declined the notion that Facebook refused to transfer personal data to Russia.
"The conversation took place in a constructive manner, and we expect that Facebook in the nearest future will fulfill the promise to announce a formal position on the transfer of databases with personal data of Russian users on servers located in Russia," Roskomnadzor said in an email.
Soldatov says the law is rather vague and it was also unclear how companies were supposed to distinguish personal data on Russian citizens from personal data from other non-Russian citizens. For instance, how are social media sites supposed to know whether a person with a Russian-sounding name living in Germany is a Russian citizen?
Latest move to tighten grip..................
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