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Russia: A Great Firewall to Censor the RuNet?

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

Earlier today, the Russian language section of Wikipedia repeated past protests against American and Italian Internet laws by shutting down its service and posting in the place of its main portal a public announcement [ru] condemning a draft law now under review by the Russian parliament. Law 89417-6 [ru], “On the Protection of Children From Information Harmful to Their Health and Development,” entered the Duma in early June with endorsements from members of all four of the represented political parties, but has since generated rising controversy, with critics portraying the legislation as an attempt to copy China's “Great Firewall.”

Screenshot of ru.wikipedia.org's blacked-out homepage, 10 July 2012. Text reads: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”

What Would the Law Do?

The law would create a registry (or “blacklist”) of any online materials containing illegal information relevant to children (specifically child pornography, drug paraphernalia, and instructions about self-harm). Once a website appeared on the list, the site's hosting-provider would have 24 hours to notify the site-owner, who must then delete the offending data. If the owner fails to act, the hosting-provider is required to shut down or delete the site itself. In the event that the hosting-provider fails or refuses to act, it joins the registry and then web-providers must cut off access to that entire hosting-provider. Anyone included on the blacklist then has three months to appeal the decision in court.

The draft law owes its origins to the “League for a Safe Internet” [ru], which prepared a blueprint for the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications this past spring. At that stage, the plan was to limit the registry to URLs (excluding DNS filtering and IP blocking), and delegate authority over managing the list to a non-governmental organization. The League's director, Denis Davydov, explained that concerns about Internet society's fear of “excessive state control” motivated this design. Duma deputies and the General Prosecutor, however [ru], had other plans, and the registry's reach was expanded, and the likely candidate for oversight is now Roskomnadzor (the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications).

Much of the controversy surrounding Law 89417-6 focuses on worries that its language is intentionally vague, opening the door to future expansions of the registry's application. For instance, lawyer Evgeny Arievich, a partner at Baker and McKenzie, says [ru] that the blacklist could grow to include other types of information illegal under other criminal codes (such as those governing extremism, state secrets, personal data, and so on), and that it could be used to limit access to political information and social mobilization tools. The most sensitive section of the law seems to be Article 5, Point 4, Sections 1 and 2, where the bill delineates what online information can be added to the registry without a court order and what requires judicial approval. The following materials (pulled from the draft law after its first reading [ru]) fall within the former category:

[…] информации с порнографическими изображениями несовершеннолетних, а также информации содержащей пропаганду употребления наркотических средств, писхотропных веществ и их прекурсоров, информации, побуждающей детей к совершению действий, представляющих угрозу их жизни и (или) здоровью, в том числе к причинению вреда своему здоровью, самоубийству […]

[…] child pornography, as well as information containing propaganda about the use of narcotics, psychotropic drugs, and their precursors, and information compelling children to commit acts that threaten their lives and/or health, including self-harm and suicide […]

Conversely, the draft law introduces the need for court oversight in the following circumstances:

[…] иной размещаемой в сети Интернет запрещенной к распространению в Российской Федерации информации – на основании вступившего в законную силу решения суда о признании информации запрещенной к распространению.

Other information not legally disseminated in the Russian Federation [can be added to the registry] on the basis of a court decision recognizing the illegality of the disseminated information.

Journalist Andrei Babitskii has criticized [ru] this language as intentionally vague, arguing that “information compelling children to commit acts that threaten their lives” could include websites dedicated to any host of dangerous recreational activities (such as skydiving or rock-climbing). He cites the Federal Drug Control Service's past record of extra-judicial online “repressions,” asserting that any circumvention of the courts can only increase the misuse of police powers.

Who Are the Law's Supporters?

‘Just Russia’ Duma deputy Elena Mizulina, on the other hand, contends [ru] that “nobody but pedophiles and drug lords has anything to fear from this law.” As one of the bill's chief proponents, Mizulina dismisses the idea that the parliament is imposing excessive controls on the Internet. “The mechanism is built on self-organization,” she explains, meaning that the registry is intended to function passively, with providers and suppliers doing most of the work, and the state remaining largely aloof. Unsurprisingly, Mizulina is not alone in the Duma, where the bill is expected to pass its second reading sometime today.

Ilya Ponomarev, State Duma Deputy, at a rally for Sergei Udaltsov, 29 December 2011. Photo ALEXEY NIKOLAEV, copyright © Demotix.

Readers might experience a minor shock, however, to learn that Ilya Ponomarev, another ‘Just Russia’ deputy and (more recently) a darling of the anti-Putin opposition movement, has come out in support of the bill. “I am convinced,” he announced [ru] after the law passed its first reading, “that today we have found a very good compromise between government intervention and self-regulation.” Addressing concerns that the law is uninformed by Internet expertise, Ponomarev even nodded to the involvement of the League for a Safe Internet, saying, “The law was actually written by an Internet-society — it was written by people who themselves come from this sphere.”

The same day, the League's director, Davydov, authored an op-ed [ru] in RBCdaily.ru, defending the law's effectiveness (arguing that an incomplete system will still shield the youngest and most vulnerable), claiming that a public discussion about this legislation has been going on for more than seven months already (citing forums in December 2011, February 2012, and so on), and investing the federal government with certain paternal rights:

[…] если каждый родитель вправе самостоятельно настраивать ограничения на доступ в Интернет для своего ребенка, оберегая его от вредоносного контента, то и государство, заботясь о своих гражданах, вправе и должно ограничивать противоправный контент […]

[…] if every parent is independently entitled to set limits on Internet access for their own children to protect them from harmful content, then the government, out of concern for its citizens, is entitled and indeed must restrict [access to] illegal content […]

The Presidential Council Raises a Red Flag

Davydov's comments appear to target the concerns raised by the Presidential Council on Human Rights, which publicized its opposition to Law 89417-6 in a statement [ru] issued on July 3, 2012. (Vladimir Legoida, the Russian Orthodox Church's representative on the Council, dissented and wrote a separate opinion [ru] that shares much in common with the arguments present in Davydov's article.) The Council's declaration (signed by 22 members, though at least six have since resigned) centered on the threat of online censorship, and followed with five specific reasons to reject the bill in its current form. These reasons can be summarized as follows:

  1. Including whole domains on the registry (rather than simply URLs to illegal materials) would likely ensnare law-abiding websites, as well;
  2. Like SOPA [en], Law 89417-6 imposes what is effectively “collective punishment” against web-operators and providers as an ineffective substitute for real police work;
  3. Filtration will slow down the entire RuNet, and damage e-commerce and online innovation;
  4. Expanded monitoring will endanger individual privacy, increasing unauthorized access to personal data;
  5. The blocking and filtration equipment necessary to enforce the law's requirements could cost anywhere from 50 million to 10 billion U.S. dollars. (Sam Greene, incidentally, puts [ru] the national cost at roughly $500 million.)

Legoida's dissenting opinion is a point-by-point rebuttal against the Council's objections. His response to the censorship claim, for instance, addresses the nature of banned information:

[…] цензура, по Конституции России, — это ограничение доступа граждан к законной информации. В то время как информация на сайтах, которые включаются в реестр, упомянутый в законопроекте, — незаконна и является результатом преступной деятельности.

Censorship, according to the Russian Constitution, is the restriction of citizens’ access to legal information, whereas the information contained on the sites added to the law's registry is illegal and represents the result of a criminal act.

Dogs Under the Carpet

Winston Churchill is said to have compared Russian politics to watching bulldogs fight under a rug. Beneath the declarations and reservations about the “Internet blacklist law,” the drama conforms to a widening conflict between the Presidential staff and the Prime Minister's government. Indeed, before Russian Wikipedia's publicity move today, Internet companies have been largely silent [ru], and much of the focus on Law 89417-6 has concerned the Duma's clear disregard [ru] for Dmitri Medvedev's perceived opposition to the bill. (Indeed, Medvedev's Minister of Communications and Mass Media, Nikolai Nikiforov, tweeted [ru] this morning that the law in its current form is problematic.)

Members of the parliament appear to be sending a message: they take their lead from the President, not the Prime Minister. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya and others have noted [ru] the emergence of what is effectively a parallel presidential government, meant to shadow and eclipse the duties and powers of the formal ministerial government. (This effectively reverses the institutional trends during Vladimir Putin's temporary absence from the presidency.) The most visible example of this usurpation has been Igor Sechin's new role [ru] in a presidential commission on the fuel and energy industry — an appointment that directly challenges the jurisdiction of Medvedev's man in this field, Arkady Dvorkovich. The doppelganger effect repeats elsewhere — in pensions management, in research and education policy, and other spheres.

Arch villain of the anti-Kremlin opposition and current Deputy Prime Minister of Economic Modernization, Vladislav Surkov, is rumored [ru] to have authored a report endorsing Law 89417-6, provided that deputies remove the idea of a blacklist. (What would be left of the law after such a revision is another question.) In the face of this hesitation and opposition from Surkov and Nikiforov, Putin at the end of June added [ru] a new office to his presidential staff that would seem to compete with their authority. That office, “For the Application of Information Technology and the Development of e-Democracy,” has yet to issue a public statement about that “Great Firewall of Russia.”

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