Russia boosts online monitoring tools in clampdown on banned content

·2 min read

By Rinat Sagdiev

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will add three new tools to its technological arsenal as part of its fight against banned content online, state procurement documents showed, a move that critics fear could further stifle political dissent.

Russia has passed an array of legislation in recent years to boost what it calls its internet "sovereignty". It has fined social media firms for failing to delete prohibited material and sought to block some online resources in the run-up to this month's parliamentary election.

Now, the government is investing in more sophisticated digital tools to enhance its policing of cyberspace.

A new information monitoring system (MIR-1) will automatically search for banned content on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, messaging app Telegram and Russian site Vkontakte, official documents show, enhancing the policing efforts of state communications regulator Roskomnadzor.

Tenders are also planned for two other new systems - Oculus, which will be used to search for visual information, and Vepr, a means of defending against information threats.

Draft budget proposals this week showed that Russia may spend 31 billion roubles ($425 million) on enhancing the security, stability and functionality of its internet infrastructure in 2022-24.

The three new systems will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and neural networks and are expected to be up and running by next year. Russia is offering close to 83 million roubles for their research and development.

Roskomnadzor did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The prospect has alarmed some critics, whose voices the Kremlin has already sought to stifle by labelling opposition groups and media as "extremist" or "undesirable".

Government pressure led U.S. tech giants Apple and Alphabet's Google to delete a tactical voting app produced by jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and his allies from their stores ahead of this month's election.

Human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov urged Russian internet users to delete old posts or accounts containing content that may now be deemed illegal, such as references to banned political groups, fearing an uptick in criminal prosecutions.

"The authorities will have a technical and a law enforcement advantage," Chikov said.

Punishments could range from administrative fines to a maximum criminal sentence of nine years behind bars, he said.

($1 = 72.9950 roubles)

(Additional reporting and writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Katya Golubkova and Gareth Jones)

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