• Draft law requires 3-year storage of mobile calls, web data
  • Operators say measure would cost $80 billion to implement

Russia, which gave asylum to Edward Snowden after he exposed a vast U.S. surveillance program, is seeking unprecedented controls over its citizens’ communications.

The lower house of parliament in Moscow gave preliminary approval to a bill that would require providers to store recordings of mobile-phone conversations and Internet activity for as long as three years. Since 2012, a series of laws have extended the threat of prosecution to bloggers, allowed authorities to ban websites without a court order and required Russians’ personal data to be stored inside the country. The new draft will need to go through several more readings in the two legislative chambers before President Vladimir Putin can decide whether to sign it into law.

The Russian leader, facing parliamentary elections in September as the nation endures the longest recession in two decades, has been increasingly cracking down on dissent. Social media played a major role in mass protests that erupted in 2011 over alleged fraud in the last legislative polls, the biggest unrest since Putin came to power a decade and a half ago.

“The trend in Russia is going in the direction of China, of preventing government criticism online,” Adrian Shahbaz, head of research for Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project, said by phone from New York. If adopted, the law will “lead to greater self-censorship as users become all too aware that security agencies can readily access their online data for an extended period of time.”

Posting Crime

Social networks in Russia are under scrutiny already. A man from the Tver region northwest of Moscow was jailed for more than two years this month for re-posting an article he didn’t write that called the annexed Crimea Peninsula part of Ukraine. The case was the latest in a spate of similar prosecutions, according to human rights group Agora.

The cabinet has broadly endorsed the proposed measure after it was approved in the first of three required readings in the State Duma, the lower chamber, on May 13. Still, the government said the data storage law may have to be revised to soften the requirements after providers have complained it would cost more than $80 billion to implement.

The draft bill, put forward by a pro-Putin lawmaker, would also allow authorities to bar from leaving the country people those convicted of extremist crimes and people who have been given an official warning for spreading “terrorist” views, without the need for a court decision.

Russia’s presidential human rights council has criticized the proposed law, saying it would “severely weaken guaranteed constitutional rights” of citizens, and needs to be substantially revised.

The new restrictions come two years after Putin assured Snowden during a nationwide call-in show that he hoped “very much” that Russia would never implement “indiscriminate mass surveillance” to combat terrorism.

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