By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Russia may limit foreign ownership in its most important Internet companies to 20 percent in the latest in a series of steps by the government to tighten online control.
Anton Gorelkin, a member of the ruling United Russia party, submitted a bill on July 26 to parliament that would prevent foreigners, including foreign companies, from owning more than a fifth of “significant” Russian online operators, including Yandex and Mail.ru.
Yandex, sometimes called the Russian Google, is the nation’s largest Internet company by value, offering a wide range of services including search, e-mail, text, and trading. Mail.ru controls the nation’s two largest social media platforms, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.
Yandex is registered in The Netherlands, and about 85 percent of its shares trade on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York. Founder Arkady Volozh has a foreign passport, Russia media said.
“Nobody doubts that Yandex is the main target of the bill,” The Bell, a Russian online news site, wrote in a commentary.
The state wants people with Russian passports controlling and running Yandex, the site said, citing unidentified sources. The Bell said the bill was developed in the presidential administration.
Mail.ru, which is traded on the London Stock Exchange, is partially owned by Alisher Usmanov, a tycoon with close ties to the Kremlin.
Submission is just the first step in the process that could lead to a bill becoming law, as it must be debated in parliament at least three times before progressing.
Yandex and Mail.ru have both come out against the bill in its current form, and it could face further opposition over concerns it could hurt other Russian online companies and impact the nation’s investment climate.
Russia’s Internet industry is one of the nation’s most attractive as more of its nearly 150 million citizens shift to buying goods and services online.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month hosted his annual economic forum to attract foreign investment.
The Kremlin used Silicon Valley-based social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, underscoring the importance such companies can now play in global politics.
Russian opposition figures, cut off from state-controlled media, harness social media platforms to connect with voters and organize rallies.
The Kremlin has already passed several bills over the past six years to strengthen its control over Russia’s online world, raising concerns among rights groups.
Earlier this year, Putin signed a law requiring Internet providers to install equipment to route Russian web traffic through servers in the country.
Internet advocates have said that will allow for greater surveillance by Russian intelligence agencies, and the ability of state authorities to control information.