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Putin’s Latest Target: Free Speech on the Internet

Writing a blog like this in Russia could get a person arrested if they hadn’t first registered with the government.

Writing a blog like this in Russia could get a person arrested if they hadn’t first registered with the government. That’s thanks to new legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin this month that gives the government power to enforce mass media regulations on bloggers and users of social media.

Under the so-called “bloggers law,” writers with more than 3,000 readers must register with Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor and will therefore be required to follow a number of mass media regulations. These include being made to publish their names and register other details with the government.

In addition to this, the law will mean bloggers will be forbidden from harming the reputation of individuals or groups, but exactly what that means seems ill defined so as to be particularly problematic for political dissent. Bloggers will also be responsible for removing any inaccurate comments they may receive on their posts, meaning that blog owners could be responsible for the content that is left on their blogs even though it hasn’t been authored by them. Many of these rules also apply to social media use, and this perhaps illustrates how stifling this kind of law might be. Just sharing information (without even condoning what it says) could be enough to fall foul of the law if it is deemed improper in some way.

If bloggers and social media users fail to adhere to the law, they face fines of up to about $850, while so-called legal entities (larger blogging sites with a team of writers and editors) may face fines up to $8,500.

Lawmakers in Russia’s lower legislative chamber, the state Duma, contend that the law is designed to stop the spread of misinformation on the Internet and to reform Russia’s laws to meet the particular challenges the modern day, social sharing of news brings. It contends that individual expression will not be stifled under this law, and it is not about silencing critics of the Putin administration or other officials.

However, it seems the law clearly is aimed at stopping anonymous online anti-government protests. A lead sponsor of the law, Irina Yarovaya, is quoted as saying: “In principle, anonymity is always deception. It’s a wish to mislead someone. I can’t see any reason to raise lying to [the status of] a human virtue or an understanding of what freedom is.”

The government has faced mounting criticism on the Internet as a result of its ongoing curtailing of citizens’ freedoms, including Russia’s now infamous so-called gay propaganda law. Some activist groups have even taken to publishing private details like home addresses and contact numbers of various lawmakers — this is something the new law also forbids, though it also contains an extra clause. People who run small blogging websites must collect the data of their users and retain it for six months after its creation. The Russian government will thereby be able to access that data via a court order at any time during that period, allowing it to track and monitor certain users.

Critics charge that this law is clearly being used to silence Putin’s opponents. Opponents of the Putin administration have all been frozen out of state controlled media and, protesters say, the last place they have to speak out is the Internet — and now even that is being encroached upon.

“The new policy is to restrict free information exchange, restrict expression of opinion, be it in written text, speech or video. They want to restrict everything because they’re headed towards the ‘glorious past’,” blogger and online media professional Anton Nosik is quoted as saying.

Russia of course isn’t the only nation to see a dramatic curtailing of freedom of speech on the Internet. In the past few months, we’ve heard of a wave of cases where people have been prosecuted for online postings, most of them for offenses like criticizing governments or policies. One other noteworthy case is that of Phem Viet Dao, of Vietnam, who was recently sentenced to 15 months in prison for daring to speak out against Vietnam’s administration. However, Russia’s new law is particularly concerning because it is in fact a tightening of existing restrictions and an effort that, it seems, is an ongoing process that has yet to reach its end point.

For instance, in 2012 the government passed a law that gave it unprecedented powers to pressure media outlets into conforming with its agenda, and this arguably led to the dissolution of (the state owned but markedly balanced) news outlet RIA Novosti whereby its pieces were given over to a more eager-to-please state controlled administration.

At the same time, the Kremlin has embarked on concerted data gathering practices. Again, as anyone in Europe and America can tell you, Russia isn’t alone in this. Net neutrality and a free Internet are big issues across the world. Yet Russia is following in the path of states like China and North Korea where a failure to comply with incredibly restrictive data gathering practices, like keeping servers in Russia, could see services like Google and Facebook forced out of the country entirely.

That’s not just bad for business, but for Russia’s citizens too, who quickly are running out of places to exercise their right to free speech.

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