The Kremlin has rejected a proposal by a senior official of Russia's main domestic security agency who said authorities should ban Skype, Gmail and Hotmail because they are a major threat to national security.
The proposal made Friday by a senior official of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, followed cyber attacks on Russia's most popular blogging site and the website of a popular independent newspaper this week.
Commentators saw them as an attempt by authorities to tighten controls on communications before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in March. The Internet has become the main source of independent news and commentary in Russia, where all nationwide television stations and most print media are under state control.
Alexander Andreyechkin, chief of the FSB's information security and special communications department, told a government meeting that encrypted communications providers such as Gmail, Hotmail and Skype "pose a large-scale threat to Russia's security" and proposed to ban them, Russian news agencies reported.
The Kremlin quickly responded that Andreyechkin had expressed his personal opinion and abused his authority by making the statement.
The FSB backtracked Saturday, saying it was not planning any measures to limit Skype and Gmail in Russia.
Communications Minister Igor Shchegolev also said in a statement Friday that his ministry has no plans to ban any Internet services.
But shortly after that, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, came to Andreyechkin's defense, saying that what he said wasn't a private viewpoint, but a "well-reasoned position of his agency," according to Russian news agencies.
Putin, who has been accused by critics of rolling back Russia's democratic freedoms during two terms as president in 2000-08, has remained Russia's most powerful politician even after shifting into the premier's job.
Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have said they would decide later which of them should run for president in the March 2012 election and wouldn't compete against each other, but Putin is widely expected to reclaim the presidency.
Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel and an one-time FSB chief, has surrounded himself with veterans of Soviet and Russian security structures. While FSB and other security agencies formally answer to the president, most commentators agree that Medvedev has little control over their activities.
Putin and Medvedev have recently disagreed over a number of domestic and foreign policy issues, but many observers see the differences as a stage-managed attempt to reach different constituencies. Putin's tough posture appeals to average Russians, while Medvedev's statements are intended to please the West and Russia's liberal circles.