Russia: Laws enabling massive online censorship must be repealed

Russia: Laws enabling massive online censorship must be repealed - Digital

ARTICLE 19 is seriously concerned about the three Russian laws, adopted at the end of December 2020, that expand existing overbroad legislation on blocking online content. The amendments further entrench the problematic regulation of social media platforms and enhance administrative responsibility for non-compliance with online blocking requests. ARTICLE 19 finds that these laws violate international freedom of expression standards and will further increase online censorship in Russia. We call for their immediate repeal.

On 30 December 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed into law three new amendments of existing restrictive legislation. All three laws pose some serious risks for freedom of expression online, Internet freedom and operations of the internet intermediaries and internet service providers in Russia. ARTICLE 19 is gravely concerned about the adopted amendments as well as the continuous deterioration of freedom of expression in Russia.

Amendments to the Federal Law “On Sanctioning persons associated with human rights violations and violations of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of the Russian Federation”

The Amendments expand the scope of so called “Anti-Magnitsky Act,” a reciprocal response to the Magnitsky legislation in the USA. The USA Law introduced sanctions against Russian officials related to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer who died in a pre-trial detention centre in Moscow in 2009. This Law was originally directed against the US citizens associated with Magnitsky sanctions and measures. ARTICLE 19 is particularly concerned about the following provisions of the Amendments:

  • The Amendments extend the scope of the existing legislation: it now covers citizens of all countries that limited entry or arrested assets of Russian citizens because of their actions violating human rights and freedoms. Moreover, Article 3³ of the Act (regulating owners of “Internet information resources”) can be applied to any person who meets the set characteristics without any reference to their citizenship. This can also be applied to the citizens of the Russian Federation. Moreover, the Amendments included a definition of “Internet information resource” for the purposes of regulation and blocking. Those are any online resources used by Russian citizens and/or legal persons (including registered media) for “dissemination of information in the state language of the Russian Federation, state languages of the Russian Federation republics or in other languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation” (Article 3³ of the Law).
  • The Amendments provide for extremely broad reasons for blacklisting and blocking online content or websites. Under Article 3³ of the Law, an owner of the “Internet information resource” can be included on the official list of persons associated with human rights violations, violations of rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. As a result of being included on this blacklist, online resource owners will first receive a warning to comply with the Law; and if they fail to comply, access to their “online resource” could be blocked fully or in part.
  • Owners of Internet information resources can get blacklisted if they limit free circulation of publicly important information based on a broad range of “protected characteristics.” These include nationality, language, religious views and others. They also include “circulation of information related to the foreign political or economic sanctions enacted against Russian citizens or legal persons,” or “any other limitations introduced by the owner of the Internet information resource with regard to the free dissemination of information by the Russian citizens.” It is not clear what these provisions mean and what would trigger their implementation in practice. For example, under these provisions, any “Internet resource” can be penalised for limiting dissemination of information by the persons or entities included on the Magnitsky and Magnitsky-like sanction lists or about the persons on the sanction lists. This could also allow the Russian authorities to block online resources and blacklist their owners for any reason (e.g. if the authorities object particular terms of service adopted by owners of Internet resources).

All these provisions provide for unlimited grounds for blocking or limiting access to online resources (including foreign websites) in Russia. As such, they fail to meet the requirements of legality and legitimacy under international freedom of expression standards. The provisions are vague and overbroad and open to multiple subjective interpretations. Their primary goal is a retaliation for the foreign sanctions rather than genuine desire to protect rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.

Amendments to the Federal Law “On Information, informational technologies and protection of information”

This Law represents an attempt to regulate social media networks in Russia as it provides for the creation of the official registry of social networks. The Law defines “social networks” as websites, or programmes for the electronic computational machines, which are intended for and/or used by their users for dissemination via users’ personal pages of information in the state or other languages of the Russian Federation; which can publish advertising targeting consumers based in the Russian Federation; and which are accessed daily by more than 500,000 users located in the Russian Federation. Thus, the Law covers any larger social network currently present online.

ARTICLE 19 highlights the following problematic provisions of the Law:

  • The Law also provides for the installation of special equipment to count users accessing the sites. It states that a number of users who access a given social network daily shall be calculated with the equipment provided for installation by the competent Russian authorities. Information about the owners of the social networks will be requested by the competent authorities from the hosting providers, and later official requests of the authorities will be addressed to the owners of social networks.
  • The Law obliges social networks to comply with the overbroad content restrictions stipulated for in the Russian legislation. These include rules on elections and prohibitions on the dissemination of various types of content, such as public calls for or justification of terrorism, extremist materials or foul language.
  • Social networks will be also obliged to monitor proactively their content in order to limit access to certain types of information. This includes an incredibly broad range of content, such as “information insulting to the Russian society, State, constitution, state symbols and state authorities,” “calls for participation in public disorders or extremist activities,” “disinformation of public importance,” or materials of foreign or international organisations that are recognised as “unwanted organisations” by the Anti-Magnitsky Law (mentioned above). These provisions go far beyond permissible limitations on freedom of expression under international freedom of expression standards.
  • The Law requires that terms of service of social networks must fully comply with the Russian legislation on content regulation (which – as noted – is problematic from a freedom of expression perspective). Social networks are also obliged to publish annual reports on how they comply with this legislation and on their pro-active monitoring of content.

As noted earlier, this Law attempts to force larger social networks to comply with several problematic Russian regulations (e.g. on extremism, terrorism or disinformation). While it may not be practically feasible for the Russian authorities to effectively sanction global social networks for non-compliance with the Law, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that they may turn to limiting and blocking access to such networks via local internet service providers.

Amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation

This amendment to the Code of Administrative Offences introduces new administrative sanctions for hosting providers and owners of the online resources/sites who fail to comply with legal requirements on limiting access to certain information online. Administrative fines vary depending on the case, severity and/or repeated character of the violation: from 50,000 to 500,000 Russian roubles (from 560 to 5,605 EUR) for individuals, and from 800,000 Russian roubles to 1/5 of the company’s annual income but no less than 8,000,000 Russian roubles (between 9,000 to 90,000 EUR) for legal persons-violators.

These amendments complement the two laws outlined above, and establish tangible incentives for the local internet service providers, internet intermediaries and online information resources to comply with new requirements and to block access to certain resources online whether partially or in full if requested by the authorities. Financial sanctions foreseen by the Code could be considered as disproportionate especially for the smaller local companies and service providers.

ARTICLE 19’s recommendations

Apart from the concerns on these problematic amendments, ARTICLE 19 is also worried that this new set of laws paves the way for even more extensive online censorship in Russia.

We are aware that the Russian authorities will not be practically able to force large social media networks (e.g. Facebook or Twitter) to comply with these laws. However, local service providers and networks will be forced to comply under the threat of extremely hefty financial sanctions. It might even lead to blocking of major international social networks on the Russian domains by the local service providers based on requests from the Russian authorities. Clearly, such a move will be rather unpopular and may be used as a measure of last resort, but the new legislation opens doors for such blocking orders.

ARTICLE 19, therefore, calls on the Russian government to repeal this legislation and refrain from introducing disproportionate restrictions on online expression and overbroad regulation of internet intermediaries.

We also urge social media networks to resist the blocking orders, legally challenge them and fight back strategically under any pressure from the Russian authorities.