Russian internet boss stands up to spies

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FOR THE first time, a Russian internet provider is threatening to go to court to prevent the security services from spying on his clients, and secretly reading their electronic mail.

Nail Murzakhanov, who runs the company in Volgograd, took the risky and highly unusual step of refusing to allow agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB from its Russian initials) access to his system.

His case is a chilling example of the Russian security services intense efforts to bring internet activity under surveillance, allowing them to monitor electronic mail and on-line activity of individuals and businesses without a warrant.

The officials cite a regulation, issued last year by the FSB and Goskomsvyaz, the government's communications committee, which not only requires internet providers to give on-line access to their agents, but makes the companies pay for the technology.

Mr Murzakhanov, 33, told the Independent on Sunday that the FSB approached him earlier this year demanding that he swiftly applies the regulation - known as SORM-2 - and provides training for security services agents, showing them how to carry out the monitoring. A detailed letter, which outlined the plan, stated that his three-year-old company, Bayard-Slavia Communications, would lose its operating licence if it refused to comply. He was given until this month to have the equipment ready for use - an instruction he has ignored.

His company is believed to be the first internet provider in Russia to refuse to co-operate. He bases his defiant and - given the FSB's intimidation record - courageous stand on the argument that SORM-2 is a draft law, violating privacy laws and the Russian constitution. But it is also a question of principle. "I am a family man with two children," he said. "I want them to grow up in a free society."

More ominously, Mr Murzakhanov, who is general director of his company, says that the FSB ordered him to provide a list of his clients, including their internet passwords, phone numbers and addresses, and wanted them updated monthly. Again, he refused.If applied, he says, the law would enable the security services to pry into, and even rewrite, electronic mail. "The FSB will be able to control everything that goes on in the country from their garrets, bunkers and basements, at the expense of the internet provider.

He said he would co-operate with the security services if they were hunting a criminal. "But we refuse to work with them secretly, without any control. Other internet providers have already signed a document committing themselves to silence, as it is a state secret."

There is some evidence that the FSB's monitoring has been in force for some time. In the past political groups in Moscow - including liberal group Yabloko - have complained that their e-mail is regularly delayed, because it is being intercepted by the security services.

"It all amounts to a violation of human rights," said Mr Murzakhanov. "If it carries on like this, I believe they will close us down." He has changed all his clients' passwords and is lodging documents with lawyers.

"I am not afraid," he said. "Now that this case is public, it is in their interests to ensure my safety ... My friends won't be silent. People come to see me to express their support. They know that I am an honest person, but if they try to strangle our enterprise I will not be silent." The Federal Security Services refused to comment.