New Law Would Expand Internet Censorship in Russia

Click to expand Image

A man checks his smartphone while waiting to board a subway in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2019. 
© 2019 AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

On November 19, a draft law was submitted to Russia’s parliament that would give authorities power to block websites that have censored Russian state media content. The bill claims these websites violate Russians’ right of access to information.

According to the bill’s explanatory note, since April 2020, Russian authorities recorded at least 20 incidents in which platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube censored content from state-owned Russian media companies such as RT, RiaNovosti, and others. Earlier this month, authorities claimed Google intentionally excluded videos of a journalist with Russia’s main state television station from YouTube’s Trending page. In October, Moscow court ordered Google to lift the age restrictions the company imposed on a documentary about the 2004 school siege in Beslan, which featured violent images.

The bill would introduce a registry for “website owners” that censor “information of public importance,” if the authorities deem the censorship to be “discriminatory or based on economic and political sanctions against Russia.” The draft legislation authorizes the prosecutor general to order full or partial blocking of the listed websites if they continue to “violate” the law.

Russian authorities already have a number of tools to restrict access to online content. The 2019 “sovereign Internet” law for example, allows the government to use technology to track, filter, and reroute internet traffic, raising concerns over the arbitrary and extrajudicial blocking of legitimate content.

In recent years, Russian authorities have ordered internet services and platforms blocked for non-compliance with Russian legislation. In December 2019, fines for noncompliance with data storage regulations were increased up to six million rubles (USD$ 78,700). Last month, another draft law introducing fines for refusing to block content deemed inappropriate by Russian authorities  passed first reading in parliament.

In June 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on four cases brought against Russia, finding that blocking entire websites violates the owners’ right to impart information and the public’s right to receive it.

Global internet companies’ often opaque and inconsistent policies and practices around removing or moderating online content, deserve criticism; but totally blocking online platforms used by millions of Russians, as this bill proposes, does the opposite of protecting access to information. The Russian parliament should dismiss the draft bill and focus on ensuring existing powers of state censorship comply with the criteria of necessity, legality and proportionality.