MOSCOW -- In the old Soviet days, the secret police had all the time and money they needed to read mail, tap telephones and keep track of typewriters and their owners. The Internet, bearing its huge flow of information, caught them at a moment of weakness, when government budgets were turning into a trickle too small to support expensive new eavesdropping technology.
Resourceful as ever, the successors to the old KGB rose to the challenge. They decided that Internet users themselves should pay for the cost of being bugged. So far, only one Internet provider in Russia has publicly refused this request from the Federal Security Service -- and no one knows how many have been asked.
"To resolve their own problems, they're trying to force Internet providers to do the job for them," Nail V. Murzakhanov, an Internet provider from Volgograd, said yesterday. "It is easy to frighten us into obedience."
More than a year ago, his local FSB, as the security service is known, demanded that Murzakhanov provide the agency with a computer, modem, a good connection line and all his customers' passwords. He refused.
The FSB was basing its request on a 1995 law creating a System for Operational-Investigative Activities, known by its Russian acronym of SORM. The law gave the FSB the right to eavesdrop on telephone conversations and read postal and electronic mail -- if it obtained a court order.
The security service decided this meant it could intercept all the communications it chose -- if it obtained a court order when it wanted to read any of it. In July 1998, based on this understanding of the law, the FSB and State Communications Committee decided to require Internet providers to install equipment that would establish a direct link to FSB computers, allowing the FSB to monitor e-mail as it was sent.
This equipment would be paid for by providers, who, of course, would pass on the costs to customers. About 1.7 million of Russia's 145 million people use e-mail.
Then, in January, acting President Vladimir V. Putin -- a veteran of the intelligence services -- approved a regulation extending this privilege to several other law enforcement groups. These included the tax police, the Interior Ministry and the Kremlin, presidential and parliamentary security services. They, too, would need a court order to read any the messages they intercepted.
Against this background, the National Press Institute and Russian human rights activists organized a three-day conference this week in Moscow, studying the prospects for freedom on the Internet. The people who once risked their lives to put information on paper now are wondering how they can protect their rights online.
They have not forgotten the past, and they don't trust the security forces to go to the trouble of asking for a court order if the information they want to read can be obtained with the click of a mouse.
"As we remember, during Soviet times people knew every conversation could be overheard," said Yuri Vdovin, vice chairman of Citizens' Watch in St. Petersburg. "The eavesdropping system was not regulated. Fax machines were registered. They could keep an eye on all fax messages.
"Now we have a law requiring a court order to listen in. But I don't think a court will ever say no to the security systems."
Murzakhanov said he and several partners began setting up their Internet service in Volgograd in 1996. It wasn't until 1998 that the company, Bayard-Slavia Communications, got licenses to buy its equipment.
From the beginning, he said, the FSB wanted the means to carry out total surveillance of all Bayard-Slavia's clients, while insisting it was only interested in targeting the criminals among them.
"They did a lot of nasty things to us," said Murzakhanov. The company found its license suspended and its satellite connection cut off. After trying to resist the FSB for 18 months, Murzakhanov and his partners sued the agency, going to court with the help of human rights organizations.
"Only after it was made public did they leave us alone," he said. "The public supported us. It is because of their support that the security services were not able to do what they wanted."
Though other countries, including the United States, conduct extensive electronic surveillance around the world, they don't require Internet providers to build surveillance equipment into their systems.
Murzakhanov said he is willing to comply with any court order authorizing eavesdropping for a specific investigation. "Never once in all this time have they come with a court order," he said.
Other speakers said that other Internet providers are obviously cooperating with the FSB. Other providers have refused to discuss the issue publicly.
"I believe we are the only provider in the country that is able to speak at a human rights conference," said Murzakhanov, who is 33. "The eight founding members are all young people and progressively minded. We all agreed that no matter what, we would do our best to make life better for our children and prevent the return of totalitarianism."
He predicted that the equipment the FSB wants installed will eventually cost Internet providers thousands of dollars.
"After you give them the computer, the modem, the line, the passwords, the appetite increases. They want equipment and training that can cost from $20,000 to $30,000," he said.
"Specialized spying equipment is being developed. It has a very narrow application, and it's extraordinarily powerful. It will start at $100,000 and go up from there."
One reporter described to Murzakhanov several unsuccessful attempts to send e-mails mentioning the KGB from Moscow, through a Russian Internet provider. They never arrived.
Murzakhanov said that all electronic traffic crosses at one point in Moscow, and it is entirely possible that the security services have installed equipment that not only reads all e-mails but diverts any containing certain keywords.
The most reliable way to ensure privacy, he said, is to send a handwritten fax. The machines don't do well with handwriting. And when he sends his e-mail, he uses his own personal code.
"I never mention dangerous words," he said, "like SORM, KGB -- or freedom."