In today’s segment of the rollercoaster ride that is Russian technology legislation, lawmakers proposed – then hastily postponed – a plan that would have made it difficult to legally call landlines or mobile phones in the country from Skype.
First, per the business journal Vedomosti, a group of legislators proposed amendments to Russian communications legislation that would require a caller’s operator to transmit unaltered information about the caller’s number. Operators who did not abide by this rule would be denied a license. The bill had been due to go for a first reading in the Duma (the Russian parliament) on Wednesday.
When someone calls a regular phone number in Russia using SkypeOut, the call recipient generally sees the incoming call as coming from a local number – they can’t call it back, but it looks like a normal phone number. I’m in Germany and calls from Skype show up on my phones as “unknown number” or “number withheld”, but here’s what a Russian contact of mine saw when I called him this morning using SkypeOut:
According to the original reports, the new amendments would essentially mess with any IP telephony service allowing calls to Russian phone numbers — there’s simply no “real” number to show. Apparently, this would take in a number of companies that offer cheap international calls by using internet intermediaries.
Parliamentarian Jaroslav Nilov, one of the bill’s sponsors, was quoted as saying there had been misinformation that he and his colleagues were planning to ban Skype altogether. “That’s not true,” he said. “And in order to ease the tension, I am now going to ask to defer consideration of this issue.” Nilov also promised to consult with telcos and those in the IP telephony business.
What was the purpose of the plan? It seems to have been a mix of trying to protect the income of regular Russian telcos, who lose out on pricey international call revenues because of cheap internet telephony services, and trying to keep a handle on who is calling whom, for security purposes.
The Russian authorities have a bit of a habit of bringing up crazy new ideas to control the internet more tightly, then dropping them (or at least going quiet on them) once their citizens freak out. The most recent example before today came last week, when the Kremlin was – then wasn’t — consulting on how to separate the Russian internet from the global internet in case of “emergencies”.
A plan in August to force people to log onto public Wi-Fi hotspots with official ID was also a confused mess – though it remains real, if ignored by hotspot operators. It’s not hard to see why working in the Russian tech sector, or just being a Russian tech user, is something of a hair-raising experience these days.