Written by Human Rights Watch
(Moscow) – Russia should not impose unjustified regulations on freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet, Human Rights Watch said today. A restrictive new law requires Russian bloggers with significant followings to register with the authorities and comply with the same regulations as media outlets.
On April 22, 2014, Russia’s State Duma adopted amendments to counter-terrorism legislation, including a new law on “Internet users called bloggers.” The law requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors online to register with Roskomnadzor, the state body for media oversight. Once registered, bloggers will have the same legal constraints and responsibilities as mass media outlets, including verifying information for accuracy, indicating the minimal age for users, protecting information pertaining to people’s privacy, and being subject to restrictions on propaganda in support of electoral candidates. Bloggers could also be held responsible for any comments posted by third parties on their website or social media page.
“This law demands that bloggers abide by the same restrictions as mass media without giving them the same protections and privileges,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is another milestone in Russia’s relentless crackdown on free expression.”
According to the new law, bloggers registered in the “3,000 visitors” category also need to provide their real surname, initials, and contact details on their websites or pages. If they fail to do this, Roskomnadzor may instruct providers or administrators of relevant sites to provide the names and contacts to the authorities. Under the new law, failure by bloggers to register with Roskomnadzor or to provide contact information is punishable by administrative fines – between 10 and 30 thousand rubles (US$280 – 840) for individuals and up to 300,000 rubles ($8,400) for legal entities. Repeated violations incur higher fines – up to 50,000 rubles for individuals ($1,400) and up to 500,000 rubles ($14,000) for legal entities – or administrative suspension of the site for up to one month.
The term “blogger” is defined broadly and may include anyone who posts on microblogs (like Twitter) or social networks, which could bring many popular social media users within the law. In addition, blogging services and social networks will be required to store user activity for six months, raising privacy concerns by making it easier for authorities to identify Internet users.
“Today, the Internet is the last island of free expression in Russia and these draconian regulations are clearly aimed at putting it under government control,” Williamson said. “Requiring bloggers to post their contact information and holding them responsible for other users’ comments will undoubtedly chill free expression across Russia’s vibrant blogosphere.”
Russia’s ombudsman and the presidential human rights council strongly criticized the law as incompatible with freedom of expression and for its potential for selective, punitive use. Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the council, sent a petition to the upper chamber of parliament, urging it not to endorse the law, which is scheduled to enter into force on August 1 unless stopped by the upper chamber or the president.
Prior to adopting regulations on bloggers, the authorities blocked three leading independent online portals using another law, which entered into force in February and authorizes the prosecutor to block access to websites without a court order if they allegedly contain “extremist” content, call for mass riots, or call for participation in unsanctioned public gatherings. Access to Grani.Ru, Kasparov.Ru, and EJ.Ru has been blocked for Russian users for nearly two months. In March, Lenta.Ru, a major online outlet well known for objective coverage of current affairs, was effectively destroyed through the dismissal of its editor-in-chief and executive director and resulting resignation of its entire team of journalists.
Troubling new information has also come to light about pressure on a prominent social networking site. On April 21, Pavel Durov, founder and CEO of VKontakte, the most popular Russian-language social network, announced he had lost his job and left Russia, citing his refusal to comply with demands by the authorities to block controversial users and communities.
VKontakte has close to 250 million users from across the former Soviet Union, with 66 percent based in Russia. Activists from post-Soviet countries, including Russia and Ukraine, have used it to organize protest rallies and other events. On April 17, several days before his forced resignation, Durov wrote in his VKontakte blog that in December 2013 he had received an order from Russia’s Federal Security Service demanding personal data for the organizers of 39 groups on VKontakte allegedly linked to Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement.
In March, the prosecutor’s general office instructed VKontakte to close down anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s group, threatening to block the whole network for failure to cooperate.
“[…] Neither I nor my team will engage in political censorship. We will not remove the anti-corruption community of Navalny or hundreds of other communities, which we were ordered to block. Freedom of information is an inalienable right in a post-industrial society, and without this right the existence of VKontakte does not make sense,” Durov wrote on his blog.
Having announced his subsequent dismissal, Durov told the media that he viewed it as a direct result of his refusal to compromise and said in an interview to TechCrunch that “there is no turning back” for him and he is not planning to return to Russia as “the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.”
“Durov’s claims provide a chilling insight into Russia’s attempt to stifle the independence of social networks,” Williamson said.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, deplored the new restrictions on bloggers and called on President Vladimir Putin to veto the law, saying: “If enforced, the proposed amendments would curb freedom of expression and freedom of social media, as well as seriously inhibit the right of citizens to freely receive and disseminate alternative information and express critical views.”
The new requirements also contradict recommendations made by the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. In his May 2011 report to the UN Human Rights Council, La Rue wrote that registration and licensing requirements “cannot be justified in the case of the Internet.” In 2013, he called on states to refrain from requiring Internet users to register with their real names, and from requiring online service providers to retain personal data, so that “individuals [can] express themselves freely without fear of retribution or condemnation.”
Russia should halt its attempts to suppress free expression online, drop proposed restrictions on bloggers, and stop putting pressure on social networks and independent websites, Human Rights Watch said.