A law requiring that foreign-made consumer-electronic devices must be pre-installed with Russian-made software was passed by Russia's lower house of parliament on Thursday. It covers smartphones, computers and smart televisions, and will go into effect in July, 2020.

The aim of the new legislation is to promote Russian technology, according to its proponents. But some fear that making Russian-made apps mandatory will provide a backdoor for surveillance. Critics also claim that this promotes technologically inferior software, and might cause international manufacturers to pull out of the Russian market.

Stringent new controls

The move is the latest attempt by the Russian authorities to toughen up laws related to Internet use. 

Earlier this month, Moscow introduced stringent new controls enabling it to restrict traffic on the web, ostensibly to defend the country from threats to its stability and security. 

However, it’s given rise to fears of an Internet firewall similar to the one in China. 

In response, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has referred to US sanctions against Chinese technology, as “the first technological war of the coming digital era.” 

Internet crackdown

Moscow’s Internet crackdown began five years ago, when it forced messaging services to share encryption keys, claiming that this was to clamp down on terrorist groups. Political dissidents have also been targeted

“A huge number of criminal cases were taken out against people who are not even bloggers or political activists, but simply users of social networks,” Alexander Gorbunov, a crypto trader and author of the political blog, StalinGulag told Decrypt in May. Simply posting an unflattering meme of the President is enough to land you in jail, he added.  

For that reason, Gorbunov, like many other Russians, favors Telegram, which provides a “secret chat” function, and claims to be more secure than other messaging applications, including WhatsApp. 

Pavel Durov, founder of the messaging app refused to comply with the authorities’ demands to surrender private keys and fled the country. On Thursday, he criticized Facebook-owned WhatsApp, claiming that it is a part of a spy program.

The authorities have tried to ban Telegram, but dissidents told Decrypt that Durov has been diligent in moving the network’s servers to evade detection. Russians have also become adept at using virtual private networks to circumvent it. 

Inferior alternatives

The new law will not prevent devices from other countries being sold with their default software, but Russian "alternatives" will now also have to be installed.

However, Russian consumer watchdog the Association of Trading Companies and Manufacturers of Electrical Household and Computer Equipment said it will be impossible to install Russian-made software on some devices, and that the international companies behind the gadgets may leave the Russian market as a result of the new law.

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On Reddit, users expressed concerns about the quality of the Russian alternatives, in comparison to international brands such as Windows and Google. 

“I'm sure you meant Gugal, comrade. You no use Gugal, you go to Gulag,” quipped one Redditor.