The Russian Duma put forth a new draft for a bill regulating social media in April. The initiative has far reaching consequences for both the social media outlets and end users. When looking at the broader perspective of new legislation concerning the online domain, the bill is a natural addition to the already comprehensive legislative framework. The Russian authorities are working their way towards total domination of Russian cyberspace.
Transferring the responsibility
The bill states that all social media outlets with more than 2 million users are to restrict access to information that violates Russians criminal code, including unreliable and/or defamatory information within 24 hours of received complaints from both private and official sources. The social media outlets further need to have physical representation in Russia, allegedly for communication purposes, and its users are to disclose their phone numbers for identification.
The big social media outlets are hence forwards forced to take responsibility for the content on their services, and even more so as they are obliged to censor illicit material without the authorities ever being involved as all received complaints are treated equally.
It is a direct attack on “fake news” and public defamation campaigns; two perceived threats, one more arbitrary than the other. Fake news is a wildly used erratic concept and often, it is time consuming to verify or reject claims. The same is true when discussing negative public disclosures of information about individuals or companies – is the information defaming (and thus false) or is it the truth? How are the social media outlets to judge? In turn, it is feasible to imagine that the social media outlets will handle complaints with a ‘better safe than sorry’ mentality and simply delete much content without much, if any, fact checking.
You need to hand over your passport information when buying sim-cards in Russia. The requirement for social media users to register with their phone numbers is for the authorities to ensure identification of possible online perpetrators. It is a continuation of the concept of cyber-liability, which was introduced back in 2014; to be personal held responsible for what one say on the web.
The low hanging fruits are ripe, and delicious
According to one of the State Duma members behind the initiative Sergei Boyarsky, the bill is to “meet the challenges of our time”. How to counter fake news, bot-nets and ensure data protection (highlighted with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal) concerning social media is a present question in all governments, however, no unitary form of regulation is yet in place. Mostly, governments are attempting to curb the issue reactively and individually, while keeping a close eye on what others are doing.
State Duma member Leonid Levin states that the bill is comparable to other similar laws currently being enacted around the world; and the bill respectively mimics the German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) that came into force 1 January 2018.
NetzDG has been heavily criticized. For instance, by Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch who states that “forcing companies to act as censors for government is problematic in a democratic state and nefarious in countries with weak rule of law.” Yet, politicians (allegedly also French President Emmanuel Macron) look to it for justification. How can Western governments denounce Russia for impeding free speech if they are doing the same?
The opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have long been fighting corruption through public exhibition of cases, but the last year or so he has shown unpreceded resolve by accusing several Kremlin linked oligarchs, public servants and even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption. The accused, all claiming innocence, fought back and only Navalny has been charged with legal repercussions. However, the cases received a lot of media attention, and in response, a law on defamation was passed in April 2018. Nevertheless, legal repercussions do not seem to deter Navalny and the proposed bill is a testament to that, trying to further limit visibility and scope of future campaigns.
Just another brick in the wall
A common characteristic for Russian internet legislation is the possibility for arbitrary enforcement – and the bill fits the category. Whether the social media outlets can or will manage their new responsibilities in general is beside the point. What really matters is that the Russian authorities have the possibility to enforce the law and pressure the social media outlets to comply should they choose to do so.
The Russian internet legislation is interconnected and the laws often have the potential to reinforce each other. For instance, the Russian law of profanity from 2014; banning swearing words in films, books, theater, music and the media, could through interpretation be extended to social media (just as the media outlet Ekho Moskva was fined for hosting a link, which included swearing in their blog section in a post authored by then presidential candidate, Ksenia Sobchak). This would mean that swearing on social media becomes de facto illegal and that it is the social media outlets’ responsibility to remove such flagged posts within 24 hours of received complaints.
Nevertheless, just because a Russian law bans something, it does not mean that the ban is enforced. Anonymity services such as VNP and TOR was banned in Russia in November 2017, but the law has not been enforced once, even though that it is estimated that one in every four Russians use anonymizers.
In addition, the big social media outlets have shown resistance in complying with Russian legislation. So far, the Google owned YouTube has successfully managed to ignore demands from Roskomnadzor, the Russian media watchdog, to take down one of Navalny’s videos.
On the other hand, after a long battle, the Russian messenger service Telegram was finally blocked in Russia on 13 April 2018. The social media outlet LinkedIn suffered the same fate back in 2016, indicating that the Russian authorities can put weight behind their threats and that they are to be taken seriously.
Another law, but the game remains the same
The bill shows that the Russian authorities can seize the moment and act when the time is ripe. They even have the luxury to follow in the steps of Germany, thus legitimizing and affirming the need of such legislation. Of course, the bill has been modified to fit Russian needs; Navalny’s persistent public accusations of corruption hit its mark. The part on defamatory information in the bill is a testament to that. He will not stop, but the bill could contain his reach.
It is expected that the law will be adopted as presented in the draft or with minor changes. What will be interesting is to see how the law will be enforced. In all likelihood, the practice of arbitrary enforcement will continue. The social media outlets will probably be left to censor themselves without much oversight and interference, except in certain areas of interest to the government or vis-à-vis certain individuals and/or groups.
Criminal cases against individuals based upon social media posts and videos are mostly when citizens voice criticism about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, the Russian Orthodox Church or the military intervention in Syria. Roskomnadzor will most likely apply pressure for removal of tagged material concerning those themes. Also, critical opposition voices such as Navalny should be careful about what to post. Not only will his posts be flagged, but the abovementioned example on how the law on profanity could be extended to social media is just one of many. The legislative framework angle for violations and the authorities will be watching, ready to strike in case of any offense.
Furthermore, the requirement for identification on social media platforms via phone numbers demonstrates that cyber-liability is a clear goal of the Russian government. The Telegram case also attest to this; the conflict began when the company refused to provide encryption keys to the FSB to circumvent encryption mechanisms hindering cyber-liability.
The authorities will continue their crusade for control of the internet and new regulation of cyberspace is certain.
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.