Most reactions from the expert community to recent government initiatives affecting Russian internet regulation bring to mind an old joke about the difference between an optimist and a pessimist: while a pessimist moans and groans that, ‘It can’t possibly get any worse!’ an optimist happily reassures him ‘Oh yes, of course it can!’
For the last few years, the Russian government has been developing an arsenal of regulatory tools devised for Russia’s online space. Starting with a series of laws aimed at child protection and combating piracy, it has recently moved on to blocking online access to alleged extremist content. This has been broadly seen by commentators as another attempt to impose control over an online space, which had developed fairly organically for two decades (on 7 April 2014, the RuNet celebrated its 20th birthday).
These regulatory moves have been recently followed up with a law requiring popular bloggers to register as media outlets; and a set of anti-terrorist laws – introduced into the Parliament as a response to the Volgograd terrorist attack in December 2013 – requiring online platform operators to retain user communications data for up to six months. A bill requiring almost the same of telecoms is also being considered.
Tightening the digital screws
From 1 August 2014, bloggers whose websites have over 3000 followers/visitors per day (the methodology of calculation is not clearly specified) will have to register as mass media outlets. In effect, this imposes upon them the same content restrictions as newspapers and television. Authors will be held responsible for moderating any libel or defamation, and any content deemed illegal under current legislation. Paradoxically, the law allows authors to use a pseudonym to publish content – provided that their true name and contact details are also published on the website. If any court decisions are passed regarding their websites, these must be published as well.
Unsurprisingly, the Russian blogosphere has viewed this as another attack on freedom of expression, particularly following this year’s decision to allow the Prosecutor General to blacklist, without a court order, any online resource promoting ‘extremism.’ This term leaves much room for interpretation, and the timing of such a decision makes obvious its true motivation – the ruling’s first victims were a number of opposition news portals: grani.ru, ej.ru, kasparov.ru as well as Aleksey Navalny’s blog. The chilling effect has already set in: Yandex and LiveJournal used to publish how many people visited a blog over a given time period, they have now removed this feature; in the case of Yandex, supposedly because ‘social media has killed blogs,’ in actuality, so as to make it harder for the authorities to measure a blog’s monthly audience.
On 29 April 2014, the upper house of the Russian parliament passed new anti-terrorist laws, further expanding the security services’ capacities in cyberspace. The data retention obligations for ‘organisers of information dissemination,’ such as social media, blogging platforms and forums are referred to in the other law included in the package of regulatory measures; this includes storing the metadata of its users (details about communications separate from their content) for six months, to be available to Roskomnadzor (Russia’s communications regulator) and other empowered authorities.
While the law is to be applied to all platforms used by Russian citizens, it is not clear how it can be applied practically to situations where Russian citizens use foreign platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which don’t even have a formal representative entity in Russia. This perhaps explains the political pressure being applied, for foreign internet companies to invest in local data storage facilities; Maksim Ksenzov, deputy director of Roskomnadzor, hinted last week that a complete switch off could follow if they fail to comply. Such a compliance mechanism has long been in place. In practice, however, such a compliance mechanism has long been in place: both companies have a system of responding to requests from any state to block of remove content, provided that they are supported by the relevant domestic legislation. This is reflected in Twitter’s Transparency Report and Facebook’s Global Government Requests Report.
As usual, one can expect the law to be applied in a selective manner, and the legal inconsistencies will most probably be dealt with by trial and error. The aim, however, is not likely to be a complete cut off of Facebook and Twitter to Russian citizens, but rather to have unrestricted access to users’ data through a restricted and closely monitored range of…