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Russia: New Initiatives Indicate Government's Fear of the New Media

The Russian government gets more and more involved in the restructuring of the national cyberspace. On the one hand, it proposes new initiatives to overcome the digital divide [EN], while on the other hand, it extends its presence, and, more importantly, its repressive power, online.

Two latest cases, originating from different department of the government (Roskomnadzor and the Federal Security Service (FSB)), illustrate the government's ambition to control the cyberspace.

Locked & Chained, photo by flickr-user .Bala

Locked & Chained, photo by flickr-user .Bala

Moderating online newspapers

The first case relates to moderating online comments on different news sites. This practice has been mainly conducted by Roskomnadzor, a Russian online regulatory body. The latest decision [EN] of the Supreme Court makes online media (to avoid being confused with blogs, online media outlets have to be registered at the Ministry of Telecommunications and have almost the same rights and responsibilities  as conventional forms of media) not responsible for the comments posted on online forums.  At the same time, the ruling gives the authority to Roskomnadzor to flag certain comments as “inappropriate.” If a news outlet fails to delete the flagged online comments, Roskomnadzor may shut down the website.

On June 23, 2010, the organization issued [RUS] its first legal warning [RUS] to apn.ru for failing to delete a flagged comment within one day. Bloggers were surprised [RUS] by this action for two reasons: first, Roskomnadzor contacted the owner via e-mail, and, second, it is not clear who it is up to to decide how fast the comment should be deleted.

As a result, this practice makes online conversation increasingly problematic. One of the issues with e-mail notifications from the government agency is that it should be signed with a special e-signature, which the original letter probably lacked.

Warrior127 commented on the case:

Конечно это все цирк и письмо по электронеке не может являться официальным требованием, но, сайты СМИ — это отдельная песня. Выглядит все это — как прощупывание почвы, удастся или нет… ведь если сейчас никто не начнет открыто критиковать Роскомнадзор за данные действия — далее это очень удобный механизм для закрывания «неудобных» СМИ, со стороны Роскомнадзора ставиться ГОСТовая железка с крутящимся на ней mail сервером, далее из нее выгружается отчет, что письмо с требованием об удалении комментария было отправлено тогда-то, отчет о доставке и прочтении, и это будет являться официальными доказательствами в судах. Вот так на наших глазах зарождается новый способ регулирования оппозиционных СМИ.

Of course, it's all circus and an e-mail can't be regarded as the official demand, but, media outlets’ websites – they are a special case. It all looks like reconnaissance, checking if it will work or not… If now no one openly criticizes Roskomnadzor for these activities – in the future it will be a very convenient mechanism to close ‘inconvenient’ mass media. Roskomnadzor installs a [state-standardized] computer with a mail server, then a report is being made that a certain letter with a demand to delete a certain comment has been sent on a certain date, a report on the delivery and [the fact that the e-mail has been read], and all this would serve as official evidence in courts. We're witnessing the birth of a new method to regulate opposition mass media.

Amendments to the IT legislation

Another case is a number of amendments (a full list is available here [RUS]) proposed by the FSB (Federal Security Service) to the law “On information, informatisation and privacy”. According to Vedomosti.ru, the FSB proposed the following measures to control the Internet:

  • data retention (access providers will have to store the data on their users for up to six months);
  • ability to close websites on the basis of the prosecutor's office decision, not a court verdict within three days;
  • ability to stop the functioning of a domain on the basis of a “motivated letter” from the head of one of the special departments (it could be at least three departments: prosecutor's office, the FSB, or the police);

Alexander Panov, an executive partner of Hosting Community, an association of hosting providers that has recently signed [EN] the “Declaration of the Providers”, argues [RUS] that all these measures already existed and were present in the specialized laws (e.g., “On Police” and “On Telecommunications”).

Bloggers were quite skeptical about the technology that would enforce these measures (especially blocking websites), but agreed on the ‘escapist’ solution of extending government influence. Blogger gradosfera.com wrote:

…Уедут отсюда все – для начала на западный хостинг и в зоны *com, *org, *net и прочие – им там письма из прокуратуры по-барабану.

Everyone will move out of here [the Russian segment of RuNet] – at first, to the Western hosting and to the *com, *org, *net zones – and no one would care about letters from the Prosecutor's office over there.

Komarov wrote:

ну хорошо, ФСБ добился своего – больше я ни одного сайта в зоне .ru не зарегистрирую!
и хостинги буду покупать только в Америке и Грузии! И через провайдера буду делать только одно соединение – с помощью VPN до Америки, а оттуда уже куда хочу.
алёё, ФСБ!! интернет – это не телефонная сеть, его надо либо совсем закрывать, либо не трогать!

Ok, FSB got what it wanted – I won't register a single website in the .ru zone!
And I'll be buying hosting space only in America and Georgia! And I'll be making only one connection – through VPN to America, and from there – to anywhere I want. Hello, FSB! Internet isn't a telephone network, you should either close it, or not touch it at all!

Whatever the bloggers’ strategies would be if the amendments pass, the whole direction to more power by the authorities online is extremely disturbing. While it is evident that the aforementioned measures indicate the preparations for the 2011-2012 election cycle, they also indicate the government's fear of the power of the new media.

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