Internet Laws: the Russian Federation
Freedom of Speech. One of the fundamental human rights with probably the longest history of oppression. When the internet gained more popularity, it became a platform for the freedom of speech to be accessible. Now, more freely than ever, anyone can express what they want, when they want and the way they want it. However, with the frivolity of this magnitude there will always be someone to confront it. And sometimes, quite fiercely.
Authoritarian governments feel threatened by the freedom of speech. On the other hand, the modern society sees any attempt to quell the freedom of speech as obsolete and wasteful, if not offensive.
And so, many desire to question these governments and the methods they use. The efforts at some point led to the creation of the list called the Enemies of the internet by Reporters Without Borders. With the intent to highlight probably the most interesting cases of internet censorship, lawless.tech will publish a series of articles dedicated to the countries with different levels of freedom of speech on the internet tolerance that are on the list– be it the U.S., South Korea, or Russia.
Enemies of the Internet: Who Are They?
The Enemies of the internet report was introduced by Reporters Without Borders, a French independent nonprofit that advocates the freedom of expression and information. The main purpose of the report is to bring upfront the abuse of power by the governmental agencies that“have used defense of national security as grounds for going far beyond their original mission in order to spy on and censor journalists, bloggers and other information providers.” In addition, the report pays attention to companies of the private sector, which sometimes come in handy for such authorities, as well as trade forums that bring those two together.
The Report also contains the detailed recommendations for the states and their governments on what to do or for the international bodies that can influence the subject matter. However, the most recent report stressed:
“At the national and regional level, at the UN level, in the European Union and in most national legislation, the legal and regulatory framework governing internet surveillance, protection of data and the export of ICT surveillance products is incomplete and inadequate, and falls far short of international human rights standards and norms.”
The last known edition was published in 2014. The report was not reviewed in 2013.
The latest edition of the Report mentioned Russia among 19 more countries as it is quite notorious for its particular effort in limiting the freedom of speech. And so, the article will be devoted to the internet freedom in Russia.
The State of Internet Freedom in Russia
Internet censorship in Russia is definitely not news for anyone. Simultaneously, the negative tendency of internet freedom plummeting has been spotted by international and regional media. The pressing activities of the governmental authorities have resulted in adoption of severe legislation, social network bans, prosecution of online activists, etc. These consequences contributed to the overall decline of the internet freedom in the country.
Before entering the charts of the Enemies of the internet in 2014 for the first time, Russia was listed as one of the “countries under surveillance” in eponymous RWB reports from 2010 through 2012.
Freedom House, a US-based NGO addressing the freedom and democracy issues, has been watching Russia since 2009. One of their reports, The Freedom of the Net, rates the countries’ internet freedom based on 3 categories:
- Obstacles to Access,
- Limits on Content, and
- Violation of User Rights.
Then, a total end score is formed, where 0 is considered to be the ‘Most Free’, and 100 – the ‘Least Free.’ Russia’s results were staggering: the score went up form 49 points in 2009 to 66 in 2017 which levels it up with Turkey and Egypt (whereas the U.S. has 21 points and China has 87). The latest report on Russia spotlights drastic content censorship, especially connected to LGBTI expression, the conflict in Ukraine, and the political opposition, by calling such content ‘extremist.’ The content blocking was stated to go as far as restricting the access to social media platforms (LinkedIn), apps (Zello), and some media outlets. The report also exemplified numerous violations of user rights, including the criminalization of non-violent expression on the internet, expansion of the limits of governmental interference with personal data.
Agora, a Russian human rights organization, has reported quite an increase in the level of aggression towards online activists. The number of assaults and threat cases grew from 50 in 2016 to 67 in 2017, 18 of which were committed by police officers. The report suggests that internet users have also faced a much greater possibility of being unlawfully prosecuted, and sometimes for ridiculous reasons. In one of the cases, Ruslan Sokolovsky, a Russian YouTuber, was found guilty of “inciting religious hatred” by playing Pokémon Go in Yekaterinburg church in May 2017. He then faced a 2 years and 3 months conditional sentence on appeal. The report suggests the following:
“… the demonstrative sabotaging of the investigation of the most violent attacks and serious threats, along with the refusal to bring to responsibility government officials implicated in crimes against journalists and bloggers, creates a favorable environment for an ongoing growth of violence, the responsibility for which rests with the State.”
The country’s key players in internet censorship are considered to be the Rosсomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) and the FSB (Federal Security Service, ex-KGB). The Roscomnadzor generally regulates the media, including the internet, and is responsible for the law enforcement in the field. It is responsible, for example, for blocking the “extremist” content, maintaining the list of internet bloggers, etc. At the same time, the FSB has more authority over of national security matters in general.
All in all, the situation with the internet censorship in Russia is quite extreme in comparison to other countries. And, considering the decline in the level of internet freedom, it is quite safe to suggest that it will not improve in the nearest future. The relevant cases cannot be more disturbing.
Internet Censorship Efforts in Russia
A government, that controls the information, controls the public. That is the safest and the easiest route to suppress any volatile thoughts and ideas. Well, Russia seems to be taking rather successful steps towards controlling the information through its numerous laws.
The Blacklist Laws. The formal idea behind the regulation was to protect minors from inappropriate internet content, such as child pornography, suicide, or drug use promotion. The position of the government was very clear. While commenting on the law, the country’s telecom minister, Nikolai Nikiforov, said that “the internet has always been a free territory. The government is not aimed at enforcing censorship there.”
Yet, the law was instantly criticized by human rights watchdogs. Reporters without Borders stated that “on the grounds of protecting minors, this law is likely to place serious obstacles on the media’s ability to provide the public with general news coverage.” In the comment to BBC, Yuri Vdovin of Saint-Petersburg non-profit Citizens’ Watch said:
“The government will start closing other sites – any democracy-oriented sites are at risk of being taken offline. It will be [an attack on] the freedom of speech on the internet.”
Before long, he was proved right. Indeed, some 180 websites were blocked in just 12 days after the regulation came into force. Among the first websites to face the restrictions was the pobedish.ru, a suicide prevention site that was demanded to take down a page detailing suicide methods and their drawbacks.
The regulation was another brick in the wall of internet censorship Russian government was trying to build. A year after, they passed another law which extended the list of illegal content to calls for rioting, “extremism,” and terrorist activities. In 2014, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported some independent media websites, such as Garry Kasparov’s and Alexei Navalny’s blogs, and Grani online newspaper, were blocked upon a request of the Prosecutor General’s Office on the basis of “calls for unauthorized rallies.”
Essentially, the Roscomnadzor was managing the implementation of the law. Through a specialized website anyone can check if a URL or an IP address is banned. The website also allows one to report a webpage that contains potentially illegal information. If the decision to block the content is reached, Rosсomnadzor has to contact the owner of the source and its hosting provider with a request to remove it. In case the latter fails to comply with the request within 48 hours, a webpage can be blocked in the whole country.
The Roscomnadzor was authorized to block any website under the regulation without a prior court order. It can also cooperate with other authorities, like the Prosecutor General’s Office, to take a website down for alleged calls for extremism as an example. Any other content that does not fall under the new regulation can be shut down by a court order.
If a URL or an IP address is added to the Blacklist, all Russian internet service providers (ISPs) must block it. The full contents of the blacklist are not originally available to users: they can only check specific addresses. However, it is possible to do so through a website made by activists.
VPN “ban”. Following the Blacklist laws, a new legislation was adopted in 2017 trying to adapt the use of the virtual personal networks (VPNs) and anonymous proxy servers in accordance with its rules. Since the regulation made many public websites illicit on the Russian territory, a smarter internet user would resort to a VPN to browse those without Rosсomnazdor knowing it. Respectively, the regulation was addressing the issue by forcing cooperation between VPN providers and the Roscomnadzor.
Contrary to a popular myth, the legislation is not banning VPNs completely. Instead, it tries to make it more manageable through compliance with the Blacklist. Thus, a provider would have to access the Blacklist and make sure that those banned URLs and IPs are not accessible via VPN. Such providers have to register with the Roscomnadzor as well.
The government representative, Leonid Levin, the head of the Russian State Duma’s information policy committee, said that “the law is meant to block access only to “unlawful content” and is not intended to impose restrictions on law-abiding citizens.”
At the same time, many undisputable concerns regarding its implementation were voiced, since, technically, what the law requires cannot be attained in reality. In particular, the law envisages its applicability only for corporate VPNs. And since one cannot differ a corporate VPN from a private one, it becomes impossible to abide the law. Ludicrously, it seems that governmental authorities are proving the point. As reported by Medusa in early 2018, “the Russian authorities have blocked precisely zero VPNs and anonymizers.” It seems like there have been no requests from the FSB to block any providers, and, therefore, the Roscomnadzor have not taken any effective measures.
Yarovaya Law. The package of laws introduced by Irina Yarovaya (hence the name) is aimed at regulating additional counter-terrorism and public safety measures. The provisions of the law stipulate criminal responsibility for non-disclosure of information potentially related to terrorism. The law also tackles online communication forcing ISPs to store the records for 6 months, and all metadata for the last 3 years in addition to providing the keys to encrypted communication.
The regulation has been repeatedly criticized. Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that “anonymity protects the rights of internet users and freedom of expression online. These laws negatively affect the ability of tens of millions of Russians to freely access and exchange information online.”
As a result of the disobedience, the Roscomnadzor blocked 3 online messaging apps: BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), LINE, and Imo.im; and a video chat, Vchat. Those were blocked for failing to provide the necessary information about the users under the regulation.
Yet, another online messaging service, Telegram, decided to wage war against the new regulation, which suddenly led to an unexpected outcome (described below).
Bans of social networks. Until now, there have been two distinct cases of social network bans in Russia, that is LinkedIn and Telegram.
The case of LinkedIn was related to the legal requirement of any online service to store user’s personal data on the servers located in Russia. Since the social network failed to comply with the law, the Roscomnadzor blacklisted it on the grounds of a district court order in 2016. As reported by TechCrunch, the network’s representatives tried to negotiate with the Russian regulator, though unsuccessfully. It was also stressed that LinkedIn is by far not the only site hosting the data outside the country’s territory.
Half a year later, LinkedIn took the official stance of declining to obey with the regulation. Pablo Chavez, their counsel, sent a letter to the Roscomnadzor, in which he stated:
“The company has refused to fulfill the requirement of localization of databases with personal data of Russian citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation, thus confirming its lack of interest in the Russian market.”
Well, the regulator seems to have a nice sense of humor as well:
— Роскомнадзор (@roscomnadzor) March 7, 2017
Yet, there is always another way of thinking about the issue. The Russian government justifies its actions with the intent to protect user’s personal data, and it can be understood. The Forbes informs that the regulation, which requires storage of the personal data related to the country’s citizens within its borders, is not something outstanding. There might be many implications of whether this was a warning to other online platforms like Facebook or Twitter. However, Forbes does not believe in this outcome. After all, if Russia could, they would have already done it. And, maybe, “the reason appears much more prosaic: a legal test case the regulator was sure to win.”
On the other hand, the ban of Telegram attracted much more attention from the media. The ban was a direct consequence of the enforcement of Yarovaya laws.
As a messaging app, Telegram allegedly offers a great deal of security based on its own open-source MTProto protocol. In fact, this is what it was created for – not letting Russian governmental agencies access private communication, which they repeatedly tried to do. The Roscomnadzor and the FSB have been trying to get the encryption keys from Telegram, but the latter did not comply even after a court ruling.
The position of Pavel Durov, the creator of the app, who is also widely known for the creation of VK, the so-called Russian Facebook, was quite clear:
“The power that local governments have over IT corporations is based on money. At any given moment, a government can crash their stocks by threatening to block revenue streams from its markets and thus force these companies to do strange things (remember how last year Apple moved iCloud servers to China).
At Telegram, we have the luxury of not caring about revenue streams or ad sales. Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”
Since Telegram decided not to abide the law, which they totally see as a violation of privacy, they got easily banned. However, for the Russian government agencies it was everything but.
The thing is, Telegram uses US-based cloud services to bypass the Russian interference. In fact, many other companies do that as well. And so, when the agencies tried to block it, the algorithm could not tell the difference between Telegram and others, which resulted in the total massacre of up to 20 million IPs of Amazon and Google cloud platforms that were blocked as well.
Telegram started using Amazon's AWS to bypass Russian censorship. Now, if you were @roscomnadzor (highly unlikely because nobody's as dumb as these doorknobs), what would you do? Certainly not block 655352 IP addresses belonging to Amazon, right? That would be so stupid… oh pic.twitter.com/AxEHfRUGnU
— Manual (@CatVsHumanity) April 16, 2018
The collateral damage was gargantuan. The reckless ban disrupted the work on the companies of different sizes – from small business using cloud computing from Amazon and Google, to streaming services like Twitch, smart home systems, online banking platforms. Even Viber, the second biggest messenger in Russia, was affected since it was using Amazon’s servers. Additionally, they asked Google and Apple to remove the app from their stores. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) encouraged the tech giants to side with Telegram in this situation. However, they seem to have received zero response.
However, with all the effort, the only thing they did not block was Telegram. What’s more – people went crazy and extremely increased the traffic of the app. Adrian Shahbaz, a Freedom House research manager told the Wired that “it was hard to imagine Telegram would do so well to remain accessible. And it’s unprecedented that the Roscomnadzor would disrupt so much of the internet just to make an example out of Russia’s third most popular messaging app.”
Edward Snowden also decided to share his thoughts regarding the situation.
Roskomnadzor's mad quest to punish @telegram for protecting user's rights has totally broken Russia's internet today. Enormous numbers of sites completely unrelated to Telegram are blocked in a morally and technically ignorant censorship effort. https://t.co/bJCQZxyzRM https://t.co/z7UFL7RtnY
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 17, 2018
The Russian government took a gamble, though, and they lost. It is also somewhat intriguing, since it looked like it was almost imperative for them to make Telegram perish.
Blogger Law. The attempts to disrupt the freedom of speech on the internet extends also to the ones who create content – the people.
The rules adopted in 2014 require basically any service or person with a daily audience of more than 3,000 followers to register with the Roscomnadzor and comply with the regulations applicable to mass media. Under the law, they were considered the “organizers of information dissemination.” The legislation also held them responsible for the accuracy of the information, even if it had been a comment to their entry. In addition, they could not remain anonymous online anymore.
However, Russian governmental agencies appeared to be interested only in particular personalities. Maxim Ksenzov, the Roscomnadzor deputy director, said that “if you publish pictures of cats on your blog and if you do not use obscene language or disclose state secrets, this responsibility might not arise at all even if you have a million unique visits a day.” And, of course they do – watching over political opponents is much fancier than watching weirdos trying to get the attention through social media.
Yet, the law was repealed in 2017 on the grounds of being ineffective.
An internet for selves. The most recent incentive from the Russian government seems to fall only short of spectacular. Where else can an authoritarian state safely exercise the power over the whole web? Of course, when the web belongs to it.
The recent developments might suggest that Russia is trying to negotiate an independent root servers for themselves. Such servers contain global databases of public IP addresses and their host names. Having those servers would also make Russia independent from international watchdog organizations like the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). So, if Russia succeeds it can create a kind of an internet of their own.
Simply put, the situation with the internet censorship is quite drastic in Russia. The situation gets worse by the year, especially due to the lack of any serious opposition. Not that they are not trying, but they are being silenced. At the same time, the government does not really care about any international organizations. In fact, the country’s leader thinks of the internet as “a special CIA project.” In the end of it, why should they bother, since they have millions of people to control?
The governmental machine is clearly trying to get hold of the “last island of free expression in Russia.” However, nothing is easy when you try to censor the internet. Any legislation can be adopted, but it’s rarely a law itself that can diminish the freedom of speech, whether it is because the law is not applicable as in case of the VPN “block”, or because of the strong will of the opposition to withhold any suppression as with Telegram, there are ways to save the internet.
Meanwhile, the public opinion is being widely manipulated through propaganda by spotlighting the internet as a threat to the nation. In 2015 a half of the country’s population believed that internet should be censored. A strong argument if you think about it.
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