Putin Vladimir, MOSCOW, Russia — Major Internet sites and human rights advocates sharply criticized a proposed law that would grant the Russian government broad new powers to restrict Web content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material. Critics said the law could quickly lead to repression of speech and a restrictive firewall like the one in China.
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, shut its Russian Web site on Tuesday to protest the proposed measure, and instead posted a large warning on its home page: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” The notice said the proposed law “can lead to the creation of extrajudicial censorship of the Internet in Russia, including the closure of access to Wikipedia.”
The new measure is part of a wider effort by the Russian authorities to crack down on the opposition since President Vladimir V. Putin’s inauguration in May. They have adopted a law sharply increasing financial penalties on protesters who take part in unsanctioned rallies, begun criminal investigations into several political opposition leaders and considered a plan to require nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign aid to register as foreign agents and face additional auditing and reporting requirements.
With television networks in Russia — and most newspapers and other media outlets — under tight government control, the Internet has emerged as the primary medium for political discourse. Citizens using cellphone cameras documented fraud in last December’s parliamentary elections, then posted video to YouTube and other sites. Organizers of thehuge anti-government protests that followed turned to Facebook and other social media to draw tens of thousands of demonstrators on to the streets of Moscow.
The bill has been moving quickly through the Duma, the lower house of Parliament. An initial version was approved last week and a second version, including some amendments, is scheduled for debate in the chamber on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Wikipedia was joined in opposing the legislation by Yandex, the Russian search engine, and Live Journal, the country’s most popular blog-hosting site, which provides a platform for a number of Russia’s most outspoken political commentators and opponents of Mr. Putin’s government.
VKontakte, a popular Russian social networking site, stripped a message across the top of its home page saying, “the State Duma is considering a law to impose censorship on the Internet.” It directed visitors to Wikipedia’s Russian site, where the only information available on Tuesday was criticism of the legislation. While supporters of the law said it would create new protections for children against illicit content, critics said the Internet was so porous that such content could never be fully stopped while sites like Wikipedia, which has encyclopedia entries on all sorts of adult topics, would be vulnerable to government repression.
“The legislation in its current form will be ineffective,” said Ochir Mandzhikov, a spokesman for Yandex. “At a minimum it is necessary to work further on a conceptual framework and clearly write out the procedures,” he added, “in order to preclude possible abuses.”
Earlier this year, the English-language Wikipedia, American Web sites and technology companies participated in a similar protest effort against two bills in the United States Congress that were aimed at cracking down on piracy. The effort helped derail the legislation.
The proposed law in Russia would establish a registry or so-called “black list” of Internet content that is prohibited for publication, and it would create procedures for blocking Web hosting companies that do not block the banned material.
Law enforcement agents would be empowered to add sites to the registry of banned material, in some cases without obtaining a court order. The bill would allow sites to be blocked using domain names and IP addresses. It would effectively require access to banned material to be cut off within 72 hours, though some details of how the government would enforce the restrictions were not laid out in the bill.
Natalya Kaspersky, chief executive of InfoWatch, a software company that provides data protection services, said some new restrictions were needed in Russia to protect children and that the fears of government censorship seemed overblown.
“We might argue if such ‘black list’ approach is efficient in the modern Internet assuming the sites might quickly move to another address,” Ms. Kaspersky wrote in an e-mail. “However, it is better than nothing.”
She added, “Right now we have a tremendous freedom of speech in mass media, with no prohibited topics at all.”
The Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, an advisory body, issued a statement sharply criticizing the legislation, saying “the list of resources to be blocked is too broad.”
The group said the law would allow “restricting access to information which is prohibited or undesirable for children, for all users of the Russian segment of the Internet, with no possible appeal procedures and re-examination.” The group added, “Many bona fide Internet resources with legal content may be affected by the mass block since the system would impose severe restrictions on the basis of subjective criteria and assessments.”
“The Internet is the only thing that stands between Russia and the Spiral of Silence,” said Ivan Zassoursky, the chairman of the New Media Department in the Faculty of Journalism at Moscow State University, referring to a theory put forward by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, in which people, feeling isolated, silence their own political views.
“The Internet has been a very strong force to counter that,” Mr. Zassoursky said. “It has given life to political discourse in a very free and independent way.”