MOSCOW: Russian lawmakers on Tuesday backed a bill that could cut off the country's internet traffic from servers abroad which critics say is a step towards censorship and possibly an isolated network like in North Korea.
The bill passed its first reading by 334 votes to 47 after an unusually heated debate in the State Duma, where many lawmakers from minority parties criticised it as too costly and argued that it was not written by experts.
Authors of the initiative say Russia must ensure the security of its networks after US President Donald Trump unveiled America's new cybersecurity strategy last year.
The new approach follows what US officials said was a wave of cyber attacks by Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, warning it would now respond to any future hostile intrusions both offensively and defensively.
Those behind the legislation say the aim is to create "defence mechanisms to ensure the long-term stable function of internet networks in Russia" in the event the US takes any action in cyberspace to threaten them.
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It proposes creating a centre to "ensure and control the routing of internet traffic" and requires that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) install "technical measures to withstand threats".
It also mandates regular "drills" to test whether Russia's internet can function in an isolated mode.
Taking questions on the floor, the authors were unable to estimate the long-term costs, what threats it would repel or even how it would work but said expert opinions could be incorporated into the bill for its second hearing.
One of the authors dismissed all criticism, citing the scale of the potential threat from Washington.
"This isn't kindergarten!" shouted Andrei Lugovoi, one of the main suspects in the 2006 murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in Britain.
"All of the websites in Syria" have been turned off by the US before, he claimed.
Critics say the bill shows the authorities' continued efforts to limit internet freedoms despite the huge public and private cost.
"This is very serious," said Andrei Soldatov, who co-authored a book on the history of internet surveillance in Russia.
"This is a path towards isolating Russia as a whole.. from the internet."