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Will the Russian Internet soon be under complete control?

A user of Russia’s leading social network internet site VKontakte, poses holding an iPhone in Moscow, 23 April 2014.
A user of Russia’s leading social network internet site VKontakte, poses holding an iPhone in Moscow, 23 April 2014.

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

A package of bills meant to reinforce the fight against terrorism is to go before the Russian parliament for second reading today [18 April 2014]. They include a telecommunications bill that was much changed in committee on 15 April. If it is adopted in its present form, blogs and social networks with more than 3,000 visits a day will be subject to requirements similar to news media and will have to register with Roskomnadzor, the communications oversight agency.

“Including an Internet bill in an anti-terrorism package speaks volumes about the Duma's repressive, law-and-order approach to legislation,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“Like previous reforms, this bill's sole aim is to increase control over online content. At a time when independent media are facing an unprecedented offensive, this is likely to reduce the space for free debate even further. The long list of new prohibitions offers many new possibilities for censoring bloggers when most problems could be solved under existing legislation.

“A new level is reached with the enlistment of social networks and blog platforms in the surveillance of Internet users. This is contrary to the principle of free expression guaranteed by the Russian constitution and to the recommendations of UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue. We urge parliamentarians to reject this bill on second reading.”

More duties, and one new right

The bill defines the term “blogger” for the first time as “a person who posts open information on a personal page” that gets at least 3,000 visits a day. It covers not only blogs but also microblogs and social networks.

Bloggers (as defined) are reminded of a long list of prohibitions that already apply to all citizens: that it is forbidden to use a blog to carry out crimes, to disseminate information involving a state secret, to disseminate content of an extremist nature, and so on.

But the bill also imposes obligations on them that approach those of journalists. They will be required to confirm the accuracy of the information they post, to respect the electoral law and to refrain from using swearwords. Using blogs and social networks to “hide or falsify information of general interest” or bring a citizen or group into disrepute will be forbidden. Such vaguely-worded bans are open to every kind of interpretation.

Bloggers (as defined) will also be held responsible for the comments posted on their page and will be required to withdraw any inaccurate content without delay. The only compensation for these requirements will be the right to make money from hosting ads.

Identifying bloggers, tracking Internet users

All blogs and accounts receiving more than 3,000 visits a day will henceforth be required to carry the author's surname, initials and email address so that they can be sent complaints. And they will have to register with Roskomnadzor, which is left to devise its own method for counting visits.

When Roskomnadzor decides a site should be added to the register, it will ask the site's host to identify its author. Failure to provide the requested information within three days could lead to a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 rubles (200 to 1,000 euros) if the host is a person, and 50,000 to 300,000 rubles (1,000 to 6,100 euros) if the host is a company. Repeated failure could result in a fine of 500,000 rubles (more than 10,000 euros) or suspension of the host's activity for a month.

“Organizers of the dissemination of information” – a new concept designating blog platforms and social networks – will be obliged to store the history of their users' activities for six months and make it available to the authorities if asked.

However, as the well-known blogger and Internet expert Anton Nosik asks, what happens if big Internet companies that are based abroad, like Facebook and Twitter, fail to comply with these requirements? He is convinced that the Russian authorities will not hesitate to block Twitter and Facebook in Russia.

“This will be the first step towards achieving the goal of this draconian legislation, restricting uncontrolled communications and criticism of the authorities,” he told the BBC's Russian service, which referred to the recent Turkish precedent.

Endless series of repressive bills

Russia has been tightening its freedom of expression and information legislation month by month since 2012. In December 2013, the Duma passed a law under which the authorities do not need to refer to the courts before blocking websites calling for unauthorized demonstrations.

The authorities soon took advantage of the new provision, blocking access to three leading opposition websites in March 2014. It is now proposed that “disseminating false information about banks” should be added to the list of grounds for such website blocking.

A bill banning negative content about Second World War veterans, the armed forces and the authority of the state was introduced in parliament last month. Yet another bill extending “foreign agent” status to media that get more than 25 percent of their funding from foreign entities is under study.

Even the most eccentric initiatives can no longer be dismissed. The parliamentarian Vladimir Fedotkin has announced his intention to register a bill on 23 April that would establish hotlines that members of the public could call to report “illegal or harmful” content they have spotted on online media.

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