The legislative elections held in Russia on 18 September 2016 have accelerated the authorities’ efforts to reinforce internet control and censorship.
On 7 July, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a package of some of the most repressive legislation in post-Soviet history, the so-called Yarovaya Law (from the name of Irina Yarovaya, a United Russia member of parliament and the driving force behind the harsh law that criminalises all dissidence).
Approved by the State Duma (Russia’s legislative assembly) on 24 June 2016, the new legislation signed by Putin two weeks later consists of tough “anti-terrorism” amendments that could eventually lead to a total control by the government of the Russian internet and of the internet users’ data. The law also requires encryption backdoor access for the state, among other intrusive new spying regulations. The legislation also specifically points out applications like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), Viber, and Telegram.
Barely one day after Putin signed the law, on 8 July, Russia’s internet watchdog Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications) swiftly announced that it had blocked four websites that called for a boycott of the September elections 1. Roskomnadzor did not name the websites, but said it received a request to block them from the Prosecutor General’s Office.
This is not a new trend. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has been openly seeking for a long time to expand internet surveillance up to a total control of all information flowing through the networks covered by the local internet providers. With the new legislation, the FSB now has a legal means to even collect encryption keys from internet companies that will decode otherwise unreadable data on the internet.
Systematic expansion of internet surveillance
Independent television channels were eliminated and press regulations tightened starting with Vladimir Putin’s first terms as president between 2000-2008. Until now, the internet had remained Russia’s last relatively uncensored platform for public debate and an expression of independent political opinions.
In response, the government has tried various tactics to suppress citizens’ right to free speech online over the years. Such moves, usually implemented through Rozkomnadzor, either by its own initiative, or at the request of courts or the General Prosecutor, consists of blacklists, regulations, intimidations and cyber-attacks. However, it wasn’t until 2012 that a total control of the Russian cyberspace started to take shape.
The systematic policy of bringing the internet under control appears as being thorough and well prepared. It started with what was called the “Blacklist”.
— 2012: the “Blacklist”
Signed by Putin on 28 July 28, 2012, the “Blacklist” law helped launch a crackdown on the freedom of the internet in Russia. It authorized the creation of a centralised administrative register initially supposed to gather addresses of websites offering content deemed harmful to children. Since then, the Roskomnadzor can add websites to the registry without approval from the justice, and it does so very often. New layers of restrictive legislation have blacklisted other kinds of websites by using the system already in place. Thus, the legislation was amended with a clause to block content “suspected of extremism”, mentioning explicitly actions such as “calling for illegal meetings” and any other actions “violating the established order”.
— 2013: news sites added to the “Blacklist”
This was done through a law introduced on 28 December 2013. The act gives the Prosecutor General of Russia the power to add to the “Blacklist” websites containing “strike calls, extremist activities, incitement to racial hatred and (or) religious, terrorist activities or participation in public events in violation of proper procedures”.
— May 2014 – the “bloggers’ law”
Signed on 5 May 2014. The counterterrorism arsenal includes three separate laws passed in the Duma in urgency after the terrorist attacks on the city of Volgograd in December 2013. Two of the laws strengthen the regulation of the internet by introducing restrictions on electronic funds transfers and by severely controlling the activity of “popular bloggers”. The “bloggers’ law” took effect on 1 August 2014 with the creation of a new register for citizen media, especially those with more than 3,000 people in daily audience. Bloggers added to this register are subject to a series of new measures (against obscene language, slander, etc.), and see their vulnerability to criminal penalties increasing.
— June 2014: “law against retweets”
Signed June 28, 2014. This law allowed the government to impose penalties of five years in prison for anyone rebroadcasting online “extremist information”. The “law against retweets” codified an already existing police practice. The punishment has been now raised to seven years.
–July 2014: storing the data
A new data retention law, voted by the State Duma on 23 July 2014, as an amendment to existing anti-terrorism legislation, brought special provisions for internet surveillance. It requires internet providers to store the users’ data on servers within the country.
— August 2014: controlling the operators
Since August 2014 the law also requires operators of free wi-fi hotspots (e.g. in restaurants, libraries, cafes etc.) to collect personal details of all users and identify them by asking for passports or ID.
— July 2016: the “Yarovaya law” (see above).
This succession of increasingly repressive laws has been derided by opponents as it lacks a practical way to distinguish between the citizenship of users. However, the whole package of successive legislation led to to the construction of what has been called a “digital Gulag“ .
Some recent major acts of internet censorship:
— March 2014 – The blog of the opponent Alexei Navalny and one run by Garry Kasparov (kasparov.ru), as well as two news sites: Ej.ru and grani.ru were blocked on orders from Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office. Roskomnadzor said the blocks were imposed because of the sites’ role in helping organise illegal protests.
— On 25 January 2016 Rutracker.org, the biggest torrent tracker in Russia and CIS countries, with about 13 million users, was permanently blocked by Roskomnadzor as a result of a decision of the Moscow City Court.
— 8 July 2016 – as already mentioned, Russia’s government censor, Roskomnadzor, has blocked four political websites on the grounds that they published calls to boycott the country’s parliamentary elections in September.
— 2 August 2016: The annexed peninsula of Crimea fares even worse than the rest of the Federation. Crimean news website, Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities), is unavailable in the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula since August 1. There have been no official explanations for the disruption in services from internet providers or from Roskomnadzor. In May, Russian authorities blocked Krym.Realii for a day, saying it contained materials with “illegal information” – without elaborating.
“It is clear that we are facing a well-thought political process”, says Aude Merlin, Russia specialist and lecturer at the ULB University in Brussels, “a process that started with Putin’s return as president in 2012. At that time, with the big demonstrations against Putin, one could see the beginning of the healing of the social tissue, something that the Kremlin couldn’t allow. Hence the wave of laws that started pouring out from 2012 until today: against foreign propaganda, against sexual and religious minorities, against the freedom of the internet.”
“There is a clear patter and a systematic trend here”, confirms Irina Lagunina, a Russian media expert and journalist with the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “What is new, is that the authorities now clearly target personalities and public figures. Most of these laws have some sub-section that deals with personal responsibility.”
The techniques of control
Control of the Internet and of the Internet-based media goes through:
— Direct administrative closure of websites (see examples above): Sometimes, the censorship is only half acknowledged, as the officials would announce only the number of blocked sites, but not their identity.
— Political pressure leading to self-censorship: Even if websites such as Lenta.ru have been up again recently, the temporary closure led to restraint and self-censorship among the journalists and the editors, and to a shrinking of the spectrum of available information. Critics of the government on social networks have also at times been subjected to physical violence . Reporters Without Borders has documented many cases of direct and open harassment by the authorities , and Russia was put on the Reporters Without Borders Internet Enemies list since 2014.
In general, one of the key methods became intimidation. Instead of targeting the whole population in order to prevent dissent, the authorities today focus the repression on specific groups, bloggers and dissidents. Also, last year, Putin publicly called the Internet a “CIA project.”
Regularly, more extreme measures are proposed by radical legislators, the goal being apparently to create a smokescreen in order to diminish the extent of the abuse contained in the effectively approved legislation. Thus, in April 2016 the head of Russia’s Central Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, proposed to follow the Chinese example and introduce a complete ban on electronic mass media completely or partially owned by foreign citizens or companies.
— Legal obligation to providers to conserve metadata through an inordinately long amount of time: The new law signed by Putin on 7 July asks all internet firms to provide a mandatory backdoor access into encrypted communications for the FSB. In addition to keeping all call and message records for six months, internet firms will have to store all communications metadata for a year while telecom companies will have to do it for three years.
Businesses have said this is 100,000 times as much data as they store already and will take more than $33 billion in investment to organize and run, eating up all of their profits. The original bill, however, would have the companies store data for several years.
Pressure on foreign news companies and social networks
Russia’s media regulator is also trying to force foreign internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to comply with the law to register with the agency and store six months of archives of metadata on Russian soil. Roskomnadzor confirmed that its director had met with a Facebook representative on August 25, 2015, without specifying the topic of the meeting .
In August last year, Roskomnadzor threatened to shut down Wikipedia’s Russian site because it contained material about marijuana. Even vice.com has been blocked, after a court in Siberia recognized one of the website’s articles as pro-shoplifting propaganda.
In spite of the refusal of big foreign internet companies to share date with the Russia authorities, the FSB says it now has a method to collect encryption keys to spy on users’ data, including means to decode to decode information from Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram.
What strikes one beyond the arbitrary are the harsh punishments foreseen for vaguely worded criminal offences, such as: “justifying terrorism on social media”. Publishing online incitements to terrorism, or even expressing approval of terrorism on the Internet, will thus be regarded legally as publishing such comments in the mass media, subjecting individuals to the same strict penalties now imposed on media outlets. The maximum punishment for publicly inciting or justifying terrorism is seven years in prison. It is obvious that according to the new law, individuals will now be held to the same standards as all media when it comes to “justifying terrorism on social media. Any anti-government sentiments expressed online could potentially be called an incitement to terror or subversion.
“It is obvious”, says Aude Merlin, “that from this perspective even contesting the annexation of Crimea is a crime in itself and could indeed be considered an act of “extremism”. The Russian laws give a very flexible, elastic definition of “extremism”. From this perspective, Putin didn’t even need the new law covering “terrorist propaganda”, because it was already covered by the previous laws on extremism. I would say it’s an overkill.”
“Unfortunately”, confirms Irina Lagunina, “the new legislation, although faulty by moral, human, or simply by international standards, is plainly within the Russian legal framework. Even the fact that kids as young as 14 can be brought to justice for not denouncing extremist deeds or declarations that they saw on the internet, or heard from their own parents, is conforming to what we call today Law.”
No more privacy
The new legislation also does away with privacy on the internet, but also in telephone communications. Operators are not only required to keep records of all calls and messages made by their users for six months, but they will also be required to keep metadata (the information about when and between whom the messages occurred, although not the content specifically) for three years so that the FSB can retrieve the information at any time.