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Thousands protest Russia's 'internet isolation'

Moscow (AFP) - Thousands of people rallied against Russia's increasingly restrictive internet policies Sunday which critics say will eventually lead to "total censorship" and isolate the country from the world.

The rally in Moscow and smaller events in other cities was called after the Russian lower house of parliament backed a bill to stop Russian internet traffic from being routed on foreign servers, in a bid to boost cybersecurity.

Critics say this is the latest attempt to control online content under President Vladimir Putin, with some fearing the country is on track to completely isolate its network, as in North Korea.

"We are here because anonymity is being liquidated in Russia," said 23-year-old student Nikita Ushakov.

"Authorities are adopting laws that permit them to put people in jail for no reason, block online resources, block access to information," he told AFP.

Activists said more than 15,000 people had turned up to listen to internet and media rights campaigners as well as to musicians, who have complained of government pressure in recent months.

"The government is battling freedom, including freedom on the internet," said one speaker, Sergei Boiko, an internet activist from Siberia.

"I can tell you this as somebody who spent a month in jail for a tweet," he added.

"You need darkness to steal and kill, in all other cases you need light. In our day, light is the internet," said protester Viktor Tinovitsky, a 61-year-old engineer.

Police detained several people. An AFP correspondent saw a man being dragged away by his arms and legs near the entrance to the rally, which has been approved by city authorities.

OVD-Info, a rights group and news website that tracks arrests, said a total of 29 people had been detained at the rally, including a journalist.

The popular Telegram messaging app, which Russian authorities have been unsuccessfully trying to block for many months, called on its users to attend the rally last week.

A message in Russian on its official account said that the bill on internet centralisation aims to "cut off Russia from the rest of the world, after which they can block foreign social networks and messengers."

The goal of the bill is "total censorship," it said. Telegram allows users to send encrypted messages to each other.

The bill has not yet been voted on in a key second reading.

A petition against the bill launched by the Roskomsvoboda internet freedoms group calls on Russians to appeal to lawmakers to strike the bill down.

Roskomsvoboda has campaigned against the increasing power of Russian internet watchdog Roskomnadzor, which according to the internet isolation bill will oversee a new centre to "ensure and control the routing of internet traffic".

The watchdog has also threatened action against Facebook and Twitter and fined Google for failing to blacklist sites. Russian lawmakers also mulled to ban usage of VPNs which are popular for accessing websites on Russia's blacklist.

Another bill which has been approved by lawmakers last week will allow Roskomnadzor to block online media outlets for publishing news authorities deem "fake".