First, the bad news: the most popular website in Russia, Yandex.ru, will no longer rank Russian bloggers or categorize the most popular news topics discussed online. That service, which for the last ten years Yandex featured on the splash page of its blogs search engine, is now kaput. In an announcement published today, April 18, 2014, Yandex explained that the traditional blog is in decline, as Internet users flee to social networks like Facebook and Vkontakte, where popularity rankings can be difficult to calculate.
Now, the worse news: Yandex’s decision to euthanize its rating system for bloggers was also a response to legislation now making its way through the Russian parliament, where Duma deputies today passed the second reading of a draft law that would impose mass media regulations on bloggers with daily audiences in excess of three thousand visitors. Under this law, various kinds of self-expression would become illegal, and any website with enough traffic lands on a government registry.
Forbidden blogging would include everything from conveying approval of terrorism to using obscenities. Websites would be expected to fact-check anything they publish, likely making life impossible for the countless Russian blogs that peddle conspiracy theories and compromising rumors about Russia’s rich and powerful. Bloggers would also become accountable for any damage done by their writing to the reputations of individuals and organizations, portending a flood of lawsuits by Russia’s very litigious politicians.
The legislation’s final draft, which the Duma is expected to pass next week, is of course the latest in Russia’s series of repressive Internet laws. Saddling “popular” websites and blogs with the obligations of a major news institution will undoubtedly silence many bloggers. Some netizen heroes, like Alexey Navalny and Pavel Durov, will continue to “speak truth to power” and challenge the government’s attempts to control the Russian Internet. Most people don’t have the resources to risk a libel suit, however, and even the bold will think twice, before airing grievances that could be deemed illegal.
To understand the misery awaiting Russian bloggers, consider a couple of details in the controversial legislation.
Conundrum Number One. Section 3, Clause 2, of Article 10, subscript 2 (“Features of Public Information Distributed by Bloggers”) says that bloggers affected by the law will maintain the right to publish under a pseudonym. However, Section 5 says that bloggers must reveal their surname, initials, and email address. Effectively, this law bans anonymity for Russia’s popular bloggers. (Unless it doesn’t, depending on which clause you cite.)
Conundrum Number Two. Section 12 says that a blogger can appeal to the government to be removed from the state’s registry, if his or her website’s traffic drops below three thousand daily visitors for three consecutive months. If a blogger doesn’t appeal to the government, however, state officials are allowed to wait for six months of low daily traffic. In fact, even after six months, the law only states that such websites “may be removed from the registry.” There is nothing in the law that obligates the government to remove websites from the list, meaning that the burden of upkeep will fall on individual bloggers.
If this is the brave new world awaiting Russian netizens, it’s no surprise that Yandex decided to discontinue its ranking system for bloggers, which presumably would have aided government watchdogs in their attempt to identify the Internet’s most “popular” Russian users. Yandex may be setting a dangerous precedent, however. Next, will it cancel its blogs search engine altogether? Would Twitter stop revealing trending hashtags, if Russia somehow criminalized them?
The idea to equate bloggers with mass media is still just a bill in the legislature, but it’s already harming Internet freedom in Russia. One shudders to think what will happen, when the damned thing is the law of the land.