What follows is a full English translation of an article by Sultan Suleimanov that appeared in Russian on the website TJournal on May 16, 2014. Suleimanov attended an invitation-only meeting at Roscomnadzor, the Russian government's chief censorship agency, which is tasked with enforcing a series of recent laws that limit the freedom of information online. Suleimanov's account of the event, along with his personal commentary about Russian Internet law, offers valuable insights into Internet regulations in one of the world's most distinctive and fastest-growing corners of the Web. For that reason, RuNet Echo is making the article accessible to English speakers.
“We Have a Chance (A Small One),” by Sultan Suleimanov
On May 16, 2014, while all the RuNet went nuts over over a threat to block Twitter and [Dmitri Medvedev’s] demand that state officials turn on their brains, Roscomnadzor hosted a semi-closed meeting: representatives of [Russia’s] Internet industry and agency heads discussed what can be done with the “law on bloggers” to make it somehow more reasonable.
TJournal’s chief editor [Sultan Suleimanov] was at this meeting and now wants to ask readers for help with ideas.
Boring, but important blah-blah-blahing
Just about everyone knows in general terms what the law on bloggers introduces. There are two main provisions: one directly concerns popular bloggers (who attract more than 3 thousand Internet users in a day), and the other addresses “organizers of the dissemination of information.”
The law obligates individuals in the first group to avoid using obscenities, to publish only verified information, to obey the laws, and to identify their true names. Those in the second group must notify Roscomnadzor about the beginning of their activity and store data about users’ activity for six months, sharing everything with any interested state agencies.
Despite the concerns of the Internet industry, both houses of Russia’s parliament and the President all supported the law, which enters into effect on August 1, 2014. The problem is that no one understands how it’s going to work. If you think about its practical application, you’re bound to raise more than a few questions.
1. How exactly does the law apply to organizers of the dissemination of information? Must any website, where users can leave comments, register with Roscomnadzor and store six months of data archives?
2. Must already-functioning platforms and services (yes, apps for exchanging messages also fall under the law) notify Roscomnadzor?
3. Do foreign websites fall under the category of organizers of the dissemination of information? What defines “foreign,” if not? If so, why should foreign platforms react to the demands of Russian authorities?
4. Does this category include online games, where users can communicate with each another using internal chat features and forums?
5. How will the state measure bloggers’ daily audience, in order to separate users with more than 3 thousand readers from their unpopular colleagues?
6. Does the law treat as blogs all collective communities and just any website that “disseminates publicly available information”? And what about social networks on the whole? Should they monitor their users’ every comment and utterance, making sure that no one swears or spreads unverified information?
7. What happens if a user doesn’t want to identify himself or herself, and Roscomnadzor asks the platform to provide data about the individual?
This is far from a complete list of questions, but even here Roscomnadzor has no ready answers. The agency’s deputy head, Maxim Ksenzov (who made headlines on Friday), admitted as much in a private conversation a few days earlier.
Yet, by June 9, the government, Roscomnadzor, and the Communications Ministry are supposed to have completed 13 bylaws that specify all the law’s nuances. For that reason, on May 16, the heads of Roscomnadzor called in representatives of the Internet industry to discuss how to articulate these regulations, in order to make the law somehow more reasonable. Yours truly represented our humble media outlet, TJournal, which joined giants like Yandex, Mail.ru, Google, and Microsoft.
This was only the first meeting, but the agency’s representatives already voiced several provisions that they now favor. For instance, they say the procedure by which bloggers and organizers of the dissemination of information work with state registries should be simple and entirely electronic, without any need to approach state agencies offline.
What kinds of websites won’t be affected by this law and can instead rest easy? For now, the answer is unclear. Closed groups on social networks? Industry-specific multi-authored blogs like habrahabr.ru? Multi-authored encyclopedias like Wikipedia? (Ksenzov has, in fact, proposed classifying Wikipedia as a search engine, thereby freeing it from responsibility under the law.)
In the meeting, it was clear that Roscomnadzor isn’t averse to classifying foreign websites as organizers of the dissemination of information under the new law, if the platforms in question “have influence” on Russian users. True, the agency’s chief, Aleksandr Zharov, affirmed that he isn’t ready to put the whole Internet “under a microscope,” therefore he will focus on working with the websites and services that have 3 thousand or more Russian users. (Why he decided to drag into this conversation the nuances of the provisions for bloggers, I couldn’t make out, but I hope to find some strong arguments against his ideas. Otherwise, we stand to lose access to half of the Western Internet—something the law would allow.)
One of the agency’s officials indicated the kinds of information owners of websites, applications, and blogs that fall onto Roscomnadzor’s registry will be expected to provide. I hope that TJournal later obtains a full copy of this document, but even now we can say that the ultimate goal here includes not just revealing domain names, IP addresses, and the names of owners (and in the case of bloggers, also their home addresses), but additionally asks for design specifications (so authorities can identify mobile applications) and even the programming languages with which a product was created.
The industry, for its part, has some of its own ideas. The Russian Association for Electronic Communications has a few thoughts about how to count bloggers’ audiences: they can abide by Roscomnadzor’s decisions, use existing counters, create some kind of industry-specific meter, or simply work according to the principle, “ask the Web platform for a statistical report.” RAEC, an organization that is supposed to represent the RuNet, suggests resting on the latter two options: an industry-specific meter for daily visits to blog portals and stand-alone websites, and requests to specific platforms for information on social network pages. Roscomnadzor agreed in principle.
A short remark to start off: I understand that I’m dealing with a state agency, and that our suggestions will most likely fall on deaf ears, though the media will report that “it was discussed with the industry” and “its comments were taken into account.” That much has already happened with discussions about past high-profile laws.
Let me stress something. Like many, I hope, of those who attended the meeting at Roscomnadzor, I am fundamentally opposed to the law on bloggers. It’s harmful, mindless, and has absolutely nothing to do with fighting terrorism (though it was crammed down our throats precisely in the “anti-terrorism legislative packet” after the bombings in Volgograd).
Today at the meeting, Roscomnadzor’s representatives repeated many times the idea that it would first enforce the law “manually.” This means that even inside the state’s regulatory body, officials don’t believe that they can clearly articulate all the rules of the game. It means, chances are, that a metaphorical axe hangs above all more-or-less popular Web platforms and users, and a decision in each case will be made by state officials. Those in a bad mood will mete out punishment, and those in a good mood will show mercy.
Yet, we have a chance to take advantage of Roscomnadzor’s difficult position and to mitigate some of the worst effects of enforcing this law. In the end, it can’t get any worse. Thanks to the government, the RuNet is already begging from the beggars.
In the end of May, Internet industry heads will meet with Roscomnadzor for a second time. They’ll be expecting suggestions from us, so I am calling on TJournal’s readers: let’s think. What could we write into the bylaws that, in a broad sense, would simplify our lives? What could state agencies and the Internet do for us? I’m not promising that I’ll quote every comment verbatim, but I hope that we find some approaches that I can voice there. And maybe they’ll even listen. (This is if I’m invited again, of course.)
P.S. Please, no trolling with comments like “let’s just cancel the whole law” or “Ksenzov’s head belongs on a pike.” I’ve already thought of that, and it won’t fly.
I wonder if the law was introduced as a troll. Drive the narrative, keep RuNet on it’s toes and if it’s repealed it it’s a “victory” for RuNet, as if they gained something. It could even be used in this good-cop-bad-cop thing where Putin repeals the law with great fanfare. All a big show, and no freedoms will be gained.
As a foreigner, I find it weird that people care to debate this law seriously. It seems that this is just another law in Russia that exist solely as a tool for the Putin’s machinery: Inconsistent, hopeless to enforce, and vague, a law that can be used selectively to oppress.
Everyone in Russia who wishes to make changes should instead focus on driving the siloviks out of power. Unfortunately I don’t believe the current reformers in Russia really have the guts to do it.