Russia intensifies restrictions on blogs, social media

On August 1, Russia will significantly tighten its grip on blogging and social media conversations and will acquire expanded powers to block Internet services originating abroad. The new authorities, approved by Russia’s parliament in April, buttress existing regulations that have already been used to block several independent news sites, some of which reported on the political upheaval in Ukraine in a way that apparently drew the government’s ire.

The legislation was part of a broader rewrite of Russia’s anti-terror law, which expanded the already-vast clout of the country’s Federal Security Service and changed penalties for terrorism and extremism crimes. The provisions, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on May 5, are likely to considerably restrict the free flow of information and opinion on the Russian Internet. Although it’s not fully clear how they will be implemented and enforced, experts say that self-censorship will be a major factor in their success.

The new legislation is alarming because with mainstream media, including national television and popular newspapers, under state control, the Internet has been Russians’ main source of independent coverage and commentary.

“Such laws send repressive signals to the online community, especially the Internet companies that work in Russia,” Andrei Soldatov, a security and information technology expert, told CPJ. “The people working for these companies become frightened of what could happen and start being cautious, they start voluntarily cooperating with the authorities. … In other words, the control of the Russian Internet is done, to a big extent, through self-censorship, which grows exponentially in the absence of well-defined rules.”

The legislation declares that any blogger with more than 3,000 daily visitors to its website or page, including on social media platforms, must register as a media outlet and submit to regulations set by Russia’s media law. Requirements include obeying the election law, avoiding profanity, and publishing age-restriction warnings on adult content. A blogger, defined as “a person publicizing information on a personal website or page,” is subject to penalties for publishing unchecked facts, and is liable for the content of reader comments as well as self-published content.

Penalties could range from a fine of up to 500,000 rubles (US$14,000) to suspension of blogging activities for up to 30 days.

The law specifies that the state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, is to develop a register of popular blogs for all of Russia. The government, meanwhile, is required to establish criteria for registering so-called “organizers of information distribution.” The umbrella term covers all of social media popular in Russia, including Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte, and LiveJournal, according to statements by Aleksei Mitrofanov, chairman of the State Duma Committee for Information Policy, Information Technology, and Communication.

A Roskomnadzor representative, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment on the matter, told CPJ that the agency was against the registration requirement because it does not have the technical capacity to calculate the number of daily visitors to users’ content on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

Under the legislation, social networks must provide access to their users’ data to Roskomnadzor and to law enforcement agencies. They also are required to keep all data about their Russian users on servers situated in Russian territory and to store all online traffic for at least six months. In principle, operators of such platforms could appeal in Russian courts, by the Russian judiciary has been criticized for its lack of independence from political pressure.

The new law obligates Facebook, Twitter and other Western-based social networks to track the number of visitors per blog post or agree to external audits by Russian governmental agencies. If these networks balk, Russian authorities can block their sites. Beyond that, penalties for non-compliance include a one-time fine of up to 200,000 rubles (US$5,707) plus a blocking of domestic access to the network until it “remedies the violation,” according to the new law. Facebook and Twitter told The New York Times they were studying the legislation but declined to comment further.

Marina Litvinovich, editor-in-chief of the independent blogging platform BestToday, told CPJ that the new Internet law will target specific, popular critical bloggers. “The application of the law would be highly selective” but this would ultimately affect a much wider group of Internet users who take notice of that application, Litvinovich said. “The law would be applied towards those bloggers and Internet journalists who influence public opinion.”

Litvinovich told CPJ the government adopted its strategy of controlling the Web starting five years ago, when the first wave of active blogging emerged on the Russian Internet. Since then popular bloggers such as Aleksei Navalny, Anton Nosik, and Artemy Lebedev have accrued an audience that surpasses, several times, the audience of most traditional regional media. The Internet in Russia, said Litvinovich, was a mobilizing factor in the anti-government protests of 2011-2012. “That’s the time the powers-that-be understood that an uncontrolled Internet could be a danger to them,” she said.

Even without the new law, Russian authorities have plenty of room in existing legal framework to censor Internet speech. On April 1, for instance, Roskomnadzor added the independent news websites Grani, Kasparov, Yezhednevny Zhurnal, and the personal blog of Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and politician, to its register of banned websites (also known as the Internet black list). The websites had previously been blocked in accordance with yet another law concerning the Internet, signed by President Putin on January 30. That allowed government agencies to block without a court order websites carrying what they deemed to be illegal or harmful content. In blocking the independent news websites, authorities said they contained “calls for unsanctioned acts of protest,” but did not say which specific articles made such calls.

“Clearly, the Russian authorities lack a well thought-out strategy of how to regulate the Internet,” Soldatov told CPJ. “The initiatives … are not backed by technological capacities and can lead to total absurdities. … Russian authorities first hammer out the laws and then serve Russian Internet companies with the task of figuring out how to implement them.” Still, he said, the Russian method is effective because, in the face of uncertainty, some Internet companies will choose the route of self-censorship.

It is unclear how Western companies will respond to the new legislation. Google declined to comment on whether it is providing user data to Russian authorities. Allegations of its cooperation with authorities have been reported in local media. In a February 2 interview with the Russian news website Gazeta, Roskomnadzor’s head, Aleksandr Zharov, said his agency cooperates with the biggest social networks, including Facebook and Google+. Zharov said he was confident that “we will continue to work in a constructive way with the managements of these resources.”

Google has been responsive to some of the Russian government’s requests. In its most recent transparency report, covering the first six months of 2013, Google said it received 235 takedown requests from the government, a 125 percent increase from the previous reporting period. Google said 115 items were deleted “for violating product policies,” and another 84 were restricted from domestic viewing, for reasons not specified.

Maksim Ksenzov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, expressed satisfaction with the takedown practices of Google, Facebook and YouTube. In an interview with Izvestia in May 2014, he said those organizations “are listening to us and regularly deleting illegal content. They make the required decisions fast. For example, a big number of pages, groups, and materials connected with extremist organizations get promptly deleted.”

On June 23, Twitter denied Roskomnadzor’s claims that it had agreed to block user accounts at the Russian government’s request following a meeting between Zharov and Twitter’s vice president for global public policy, Colin Crowell. Zharov said Twitter had pledged to block several accounts that Russian prosecutors deem extremist, the state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported. “That claim is inaccurate, as we did not agree to remove the accounts,” a Twitter representative told BuzzFeed.

Although the recent Internet measures are technologically challenging to implement and out of sync with each other, Soldatov says they are effective. “Everyone gets scared, because they figure out that the law is too broadly written and the measures could be selectively implemented as authorities please,” he said.