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Russian Parliament Gears Up for Role in Net Economy

The Internet has been one of the last frontiers unconquered by Russia's galling government regulations, but that may soon change.

During its spring session, the national parliament (known as the State Duma) is gearing up to consider as many as 15 bills to regulate the Internet, said a Duma official.

"We need to manage our online relationships," said Yury Travkin, a consultant to the Duma's commission on information policy, in a telephone interview. "It is important for Russia to regulate its Internet if it wants to be serious about entering into the WTO [World Trade Organization]."

While Travkin declined to list all the pending bills because committees are still massaging the drafts into shape, he said the package will most likely contain provisions banning commercial spam, or junk e-mail, protecting intellectual property, preventing copyright infringement, securing online payments and addressing the legitimacy of digital signatures.

A bill that is likely to draw fire from defendants of free speech stipulates that all Internet publications need to register with the Communications Ministry if they want to be considered members of the mass media.

Dmitry Itskovich, who runs the news and information site Polit.ru, said in a telephone interview that this bill had raised more fears than many online news organizations felt were justified. Many of the organizations had already voluntarily registered with the ministry not only in order to qualify for tax breaks available to the media, but also to be officially recognized, he said.

"I don't think online publications should be treated any differently than other media," Itskovich added. Other bills seem more likely to kill, rather than foster, the virtual domains deputies wish to regulate.

The nationally prominent daily newspaper "Segodnya" reported that the Duma's economic policy committee has recommended that only officially registered, self-employed business people be able to shop in Internet stores. From a legal perspective, the proposed regulations will assist Russian companies blazing the trails of electronic commerce, said Timofei Kotenev, an e-commerce specialist at law firm Lovells.

"This will create one legal base and give a green light to the development of online commerce on Russia," said Kotenev, adding that since the Internet knows no national boundaries, the Duma should be sure the bills are written according to international standards. While he welcomes the government's involvement as long as it facilitates the growth of the Internet, Kotenev warns some regulations may go too far.

For instance, he said, under the proposed bills, companies that want to use digital signatures for legally-binding contracts will have to register with the Federal Communications and Information Agency - a move that could lead to privacy abuses. Adversaries of government control over the World Wide Web can easily justify their apprehensions.

The ex-KGB, now called the Federal Security Service, or FSB, already monitors e-mails and other Internet communications though a program named SORM, or System for Operational-Investigative Activities. The FSB claims the program helps catch cyber criminals, terrorists, and spies. SORM requires security services to obtain a warrant prior to looking at electronic transmissions, but critics argue the FSB can simply ignore the rules.

Ignoring existing rules is precisely the problem, according to Tom Adshead, an Internet and telecom analyst at Troika Dialog. "There are a bunch of existing laws that are totally ignored, so all they have to do is apply them to the Internet and use the legal system to enforce them."

Adshead said the main stumbling blocks to the widespread acceptance of the Internet in Russia is not the lack of applicable laws. "What's holding the growth of the Internet here is the fact that people don't have th