The Russian-language Internet, which had remained an area of relatively free expression until recently, may soon see its landscape thoroughly reshaped. Haunted by newly resurrected images of the West as an adversary both online and offline, the federal authorities are putting together a package of new Internet restrictions, which opposition-minded observers see as the prelude to a crackdown on dissent.
The blogosphere, which the authorities already attempted to restrict in the past as a seedbed of unrest, is the first target of the new measures.
Cold War 2.0
On May 5, Russian president Putin signed a new ‘anti-terrorist’ bill into law, compelling bloggers with a daily audience of more than 3,000 readers to act as if they were mass media publications.
The bill requires bloggers to verify published information, withhold details about an individual’s private life, including their full name or email address, and even indicate an age requirement for readers.
A government body will keep a register of the most read blogs, with the authority to obtain any information from the bloggers and/or facilitator platforms such as search engines, social networks and forum providers. Failure to provide the requested data within ten days will result in a fine of up to 30,000 rubles (approximately $850) for an individual, and up to 300,000 rubles ($8,500) for a legal entity.
Second refusal to provide the information may cost the violator $14,000 and up to a month in jail.
Beleaguered Russian bloggers received support from an unlikely yet high-profile champion. US Secretary of State John Kerry lambasted the new Russian law in his April 30th official blog post, referring to it as a “potent… cocktail of regression and repression.” Flouting “the principles and ideals of Internet freedom” is “part of a pattern” for today’s Russia, Secretary Kerry said.
His words from abroad echo the domestic complaints about violations of Internet freedom across Russia, asexposed this February by a Russian civil rights group. Another wake-up call came in March following a new round of websites blocked by the Russian government.
No terrorists in Russian classrooms
With bloggers now effectively kept in check, the Russian government is making sure no web-nurtured terrorists infiltrate high schools and universities.
Another government bill, now open for public discussion on the Unified Portal, a special website for e-democracy, calls for educational institutions to monitor their professors’ and students’ activity online.
Scrutiny may go so far as to include scanning professors’ and students’ personal pages, as well as websites, forums, blogs and social network communities they visit, to ensure none are spreading information of a “terrorist and extremist nature.” The authorities want to create special websites dedicated to “monitoring an information medium in an educational environment, and its content.”
In an exchange with Gazeta.ru a spokesman for the Russian union of high school teachers voiced sharp criticism of the initiative, which he pointed out tends to confuse the school with a law enforcement agency.
A new national network architecture
Control over Internet service providers (ISPs) could also be tightened, altering the architecture of the Russian segment of the World Wide Web. In late April several sources from both the government and the telecoms industry shared the key points of the government’s plans with the Russian business daily Kommersant.
The initiative aims to bar regional and local telecoms operators from connecting to the international Internet networks, requiring them to have all their traffic ‘pre-sifted’ by national operators, according to Kommersant’s anonymous sources.
Content would be filtered at the local, regional and national levels, allowing authorities to restrict access to content in a particular language, for example.
Such restrictions would go far beyond the current scope of content restrictions – which allow bans on what the government deems as terrorism/extremism, child pornography, suicidal guides or pirated content. They might potentially contradict the Russian Constitution, whose article 29 grants Russians the right to free access to information, one of Kommersant’s sources commented.
Going ahead with the package, the source added, would require rebuilding the Russian network architecture, ratcheting up unwarranted costs for operators and inflating prices for customers. Many small regional operators will be put out of business, and some international ones may be forced to bow out as a result of the move, the source believes.
Placing DNS servers for the .ru and .rf domain names outside of Russia will also be outlawed, another source said. Today, most of these are located in the US.
The Coordination Center for TLD RU/RF, an NGO with the mandate to develop terms and conditions for registering domain names in the .ru and .rf areas, may soon be stripped of its authority too, with a federal government body taking over.
These leaks are framed by President Putin’s recent statements about the Internet – which he sees as emerging from “a special project of the CIA” – comments that triggered a wave of unease in Russia and abroad.
However, the President’s press secretary told Kommerant he had “never heard” of any such plans. “I don’t think that [the Internet can be ruled] by such primitivist (sic) approaches,” he said, describing the state’s “main task” as to “protect national interests without slowing down the development and without stifling the competitive environment” of the network.