The Russian internet, commonly referred to as the RuNet, has increasingly become a strategic battlefield where the Russian authorities seek domination by sheer legal efficacy – possibly incriminating all and everyone along the way by turning cyberspace into a legislative minefield.

Before Putin’s third term as Russian President no laws on internet regulation are worth mentioning. However, after 2012, a wide range of interventionist internet policies have been enacted in the guise of e.g. the protection of children, the protection from terrorism or extremist activities, copyright infringement or foreign access to Russian citizens’ data.

Undoubtedly, the laws do protect Russian citizens from perceived threats, however, the legislation also introduces serious ramifications for the freedom of speech, the freedom of media and the right to privacy in Russia.

How did we get here?
In its early years, the RuNet was a free haven of illicit content and anonymity. Not many Russians were online and the authorities consequently did not pay much attention to cyberspace.

However, from the early 2000s and onwards the internet became available for ordinary Russians (the internet penetration rose from only 2% in 2000 to 43% in 2010, and to 71% in 2016), but just as importantly, two other factors were simultaneously affirming the Russian authorities’ skepticism of an unregulated internet.

Firstly, the Color Revolutions in the former USSR, the Arab Spring and, the demonstrations happening in the wake of the State Duma elections in winter 2011/2012 where the Russians took to the streets, stand as powerful showcases on just how effective the internet can be as a tool for organization and interactivity.

Secondly, Putin arrogated the traditional Russian media landscape throughout the 2000s, imposing a neo-authoritarian media system with de facto indirect or direct control of freedom of expression and media discourse in Russia. With state control over traditional media, the independent news agencies moved online and took the ongoing abrogation with them.

The determinants mentioned above made it clear that the RuNet should be regulated from the point of view of the Russian authorities. That same year, the first important internet law was adopted.

Internet policies: a brave new world
In 2012, direct censorship of the RuNet was introduced with the implementation of the blacklist law. The law was to protect children from harmful online content by blocking pages with prohibited material, but in only a couple of years a wide range of other content has been included too.

As of September 2017, sites end up blacklisted if they contain the following: child pornography, information about illicit drugs and narcotics or anything related to suicide; copyrighted material or information that calls for riots and/or extremist activities; the failure to store data on Russian citizens on Russian soil and technologies that allow users to gain access to already blocked information resources (i.e. VPN services and anonymizers).

What is the problem?
The brief overview is to show just how much of the online landscape the current Russian legislation has come to encompass in only a few years. There are no indications pointing towards an end to future legislation – just the opposite; it is very likely that more laws are to follow. The international human rights group Agora reported that Russia in 2016 adopted at least 97 new legislative initiatives related to the RuNet, compared with only 5 in 2011.

A shared characteristic of the legislation is that of arbitrary or vague formulations in the legal texts or other in-built mechanisms enabling a wide array of possible and sometimes ‘alternative’ ways of enforcement of the laws. In other words; individually, each of the laws symbolize a new flexible regulatory tool, but collectively they constitute a matrix of possible usages.

Below are three different examples of arbitrary enforcement, where the legislation, arguably, is imposing restrictions on Russian citizens rather than protecting them:

  1. Ordinary citizens are increasingly being criminally charged for various social media posts and online videos; especially when voicing criticism about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, the Russian Orthodox Church or the military intervention in Syria.
  2. State Duma deputy threatens online media outlet with extremism-charges for critical reporting of the current situation in Chechnya and pro-Putin Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
  3. Russian Pornhub users now need to sign in through social media.

An enlightening showcase of what not to do
The abovementioned examples should compel the reader to wonder; should legislation, enacted to protect us, justify imprisonment for posting, sharing or liking something on social media, justify intimidation of the independent media and justify the tracking of our porn preferences?

This article aspires to illustrate just how important it is to secure fundamental rights such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of media and the right to privacy when formulating new legislation. We need to refrain from taking quick and irreversible decisions with unknown or unclear ramifications when facing new perceived threats from evolving technologies such as the internet.

Anders Bjørn Larsen, cand.mag. in Eastern European Studies

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin signing a law. CNN. Licensed under Public Domain

Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.

About the Author: Anders Bjørn Larsen

Anders Bjørn Larsen is a young Danish professional and holder of a M.A. in Eastern European Studies (Russian language) from Aarhus University. His interests revolve around all-things-Russia, ICT and security – and especially the interconnection between them. He is an active member of the YATADK research team.

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