Another Internet crackdown appears to be looming in Russia, where the Duma is reviewing three new pieces of proposed “anti-terror” legislation that could place hefty restrictions on the activities of website operators and civil society organizers.
Two of the bills address government surveillance powers—one would create new requirements obliging website operators to report on the every move of their users, while another addresses penalties for terror-related crimes. The third would set new restrictions for individuals and organizations accepting anonymous donations through online services like PayPal, a measure that could have an especially strong impact on small civil society groups.
The three proposed laws
The first of the three bills (Legislative initiative 428884-6 [ru]) creates new requirements for mandatory archives and notifications, granting the federal government wide jurisdiction. The most concerning article of the bill stipulates that “individuals or legal entities” who “[organize] the dissemination of information and (or) the exchange of information between Internet users are obligated to store all information about the arrival, transmission, delivery, and processing of voice data, written text, images, sounds, or other kinds of action” that occur when using their website. At all times, data archives must include the most recent six months of activity.
It appears that this obligation would apply to the owners and operators of websites and services ranging from multinational services like Facebook to small community blogs and discussion platforms.
Website “organizers” must also “inform” (уведомить) Russian security services when users first begin using their sites, and whenever users “exchange information.” Taken literally, this requirement could create a nearly impossible task for administrators of blogs, social media sites, and other discussion platforms with large quantities of users.
The legislation also includes an ambitious note about jurisdiction, claiming applicability to all websites that Russian citizens access: “In the event that the communication service organizer is located beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, but the user of the services is located within Russian territory, the location of services rendered is the territory of the Russian Federation.” Jurisdictional inconsistencies and international human rights norms would make such a policy nearly impossible to implement.
Finally, the legislation proposes fines for website owners who do not comply with the law, threatening legal entities (e.g., Facebook, Vkontakte, Twitter) with penalties as high as six thousand dollars per offense. It is also difficult to imagine how such a scheme could be implemented across international borders.
The second bill (Legislative initiative 428889-6 [ru]) would broaden police powers and raise penalties for terrorism. This legislation grants the Federal Security Service (post-Soviet Russia’s successor to the KGB) rights to inspect travelers that currently only regular police enjoy. It also increases the maximum prison sentences for several terrorism-related crimes.
Finally, the third piece of legislation (Legislative initiative 428896-6 [ru]) would place new limits on online money transfers. This draft law would raise limits on anonymous online financial transactions and ban all international online financial transactions, where the electronic money operator (e.g., PayPal, Yandex.Dengi, WebMoney) does not know the client’s legal identity. The legislation also raises operating costs for NGOs, requiring them to report on every three thousand dollars spent in foreign donations. (Currently, NGOs must report on every six thousand such dollars.)
The proposed restrictions on anonymous online money transfers could be significant. Currently in Russia, one can deposit up to 1,200 dollars into a single anonymous online wallet, and one can pay out almost 450 dollars from that account in a single transaction. Under the new legislation, Russians wouldn’t be able to spend more than 450 dollars in a whole calendar month from any one anonymous online money account, and single-day transactions would be limited to just under 30 dollars (1000 rubles).
Freezing civil society’s electronic wallet?
How much money do Russian netizens typically send when they transfer rubles online? Consider Alexey Navalny’s August 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign, which he funded largely with online donations through Yandex.Dengi (a service similar to PayPal). Navalny’s public audit [ru] of his online donations is still accessible, and it’s clear from just a glance that a sizeable number of the transfers were well above 1000 rubles.
Perhaps anticipating today’s backlash to the new crackdown on anonymous RuNet money transfers, the Duma actually raised the allowed maximum balance [ru] for identified (non-anonymous) online money accounts in late December 2013, increasing it from 100 thousand rubles (3 thousand dollars) to 600 thousand rubles (almost 18 thousand dollars).
Indeed, the legislation’s potential impact on crowd-funded projects (like Navalny’s mayoral campaign, his anti-corruption organizations, and others’ grassroots efforts) has alarmed many in the Russian blogosphere. Writer and activist Arkady Babchenko, who runs a civic group called “Journalists without Intermediaries,” published an emotional blog post [ru] on Echo of Moscow, declaring that the new legislation would destroy any efforts to fund his project, which he promotes unceasingly in his online social media (always directing his readers to the group’s Yandex.Dengi account). “Now I can close down the project with a clear conscience,” he announced fatalistically.
RuNet guru Anton Nosik blogged [ru] in a similar tone on LiveJournal, claiming that Russians who order pizzas online costing over 1000 rubles run the risk of being labeled “terrorists.” With even greater hyperbole, economist and city council member Konstantin Yankauskas proclaimed in a Facebook post [ru], “Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Federal Duma is preparing to shut down Yandex.Dengi.” Like Babchenko, Yankauskas manages his own crowd-funded civic group—a local newspaper in the Moscow suburb of Zyuzino.
Curiously, Babchenko, Nosik, and Yankauskas all downplay the fact that the proposed limitations on Internet money transfers apply exclusively to anonymous accounts. Presumably, their panic is rooted in the assumption that Russians will donate to civic initiatives only if they can do so anonymously, without alerting the authorities to any ostensibly “oppositionist” leanings.
These intended reforms may have been designed to force Russian civic society’s supporters into the open, thereby thinning their numbers. Even now, while the legislation is not yet law, civic groups like Babchenko’s and Yankauskas’ are far from wildly successful. “Journalists without Intermediaries” has just 110 “likes” on Facebook, and “I Live in Zyuzino” has fewer than 300 followers on Vkontakte. As the proprietor of the former rushes to announce a closure of operations and the head of the latter concludes immediately that “Yandex.Dengi will be shut down,” it seems that some struggling online initiatives might use the latest RuNet crackdown to save themselves from the ordinary disgrace of unpopularity.
According to Vedomosti newspaper [ru], work on the bills has been underway for some time, but a recent string of terrorist attacks in the city of Volgograd accelerated the process. Four of the laws’ sponsors are former professionals in Russia’s security apparatus (including one former prosecutor, two former FSB agents, and a former deputy chairman of the federal “Information Policy Committee”). The legislation was drafted in closed meetings with representatives of Rosfinmonitoring (an anti-money-laundering agency), the Federal Security Service, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Whatever the ulterior motives of Russian lawmakers and the fundraising strategies of civic groups, this move to peel back the privacy offered by online exchange will have an inevitable chilling effect on the country’s netizen self-organization. One of the bills’ authors, Oleg Denisenko, even admitted [ru] to Kommersant newspaper that the legislation “will be unpopular.” As the Duma discusses and revises the bills over the coming weeks, Denisenko will learn whether his colleagues agree that the fight against terrorism warrants such sacrifices. The initial reactions from the RuNet, however, indicate that the proposed measures will never be popular with the country’s bloggers.