Russian lawmakers just can’t decide whether—or why—they should ban Skype

Image: RIA Novosti/Mikhail Klimentyev
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The State Duma, Russia’s lower legislative house, was today supposed to discuss a bill that would impose restrictions on the way Skype and other online telephony services operate. Instead, they postponed it to October, following reports in the Russian press that the government wanted to ban Skype and the like altogether, reports ITAR-TASS, the state news agency.

On its own, that wouldn’t be news. But Russia has been trying to figure out what to do with Skype since at least 2009, when the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE) argued that internet telephony was “infringing the interests of Russian cellular operators.” At its heart, the long-running controversy is about lost revenue. Russian mobile operators lose money when people use Skype instead of their networks. They also lose out on termination fees, which operators receive from foreign networks when they connect a call from abroad.

Russia wants Skype to display origin phone numbers so that local operators know who to charge. (Microsoft declined to comment.)

But such commercial considerations don’t always rouse the passions of lawmakers. So in 2014, as in 2009 and again in 2011, the argument is cloaked in talk about security. According to the Moscow Times, the bill’s co-author, Yaroslav Nilov, made the case that Skype and its competitors facilitate terrorism, drug dealers, and spammers, since they cannot be tracked.

This is, of course, patently untrue. Vodomosti, a Russian business paper, reported last year that Russian intelligence authorities can monitor Skype conversations at will and pinpoint the user’s location (link in Russian). Moreover, Skype itself agreed to share data with Russian authorities earlier this year.

That brings us back to the economic argument. Russian operators say they lose some 90 billion rubles ($2.3 billion) annually thanks to over-the-top services, which includes Skype, WhatsApp and other internet-based ways of making calls and sending texts. That may well be the case. But Russian authorities have previously found themselves powerless to do anything about it: Last year, the Russian telecoms regulator rejected a bit from MTS, a major mobile operator, to restrict Skype, saying that it was powerless to regulate a company that was registered in Luxembourg.

Moreover, displaying an origin phone number seems like a big ask when there is no phone number to display. And as today’s postponement shows, the Russian public—generally ignored by lawmakers—still has enough say in the matter to rule out an outright ban.