Russia’s lawmakers and police are in a race to take control over the Internet. For more than two years, the parliament has spewed out legislation that imposes new restrictions on Internet use. Now, engorged by these new laws, Russia’s authorities can legally shut down, lock up, or block off just about anything happening online. The Kremlin has been careful to avoid targeting Russia’s e-business sector, but political expression on the Web has become increasingly unsafe.
Despite the rapid growth of the country’s Internet regulations, Russian police have managed to outpace lawmakers, prosecuting Web users for acts that haven't even been formally criminalized. On June 20, the Duma took a step toward closing this gap, passing legislation that would allow the government to send people to prison for up to five years – all for disseminating, or re-disseminating, “extremist materials.”
The new legislation fits perfectly with the “turning of the screws” so evident in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, but the first draft actually dates back to August 2011, well before Russia’s “Winter of Discontent.” Regardless, the authors’ suspicion of Internet freedom is especially pronounced in an explanatory note attached to the first draft, which reads in sparkling, bureaucratic jargon:
Компьютеризация российского общества, увеличение числа пользователей международной компьютерной сети “Интернет” приводит к необходимости совершенствования российского законодательства с целью обеспечения эффективности его противодействия новым вызовам и угрозам современности. […] Отсутствие адекватной реакции на размещение экстремистских материалов в международной компьютерной сети “Интернет” со стороны органов государственной власти, призванных бороться с любыми проявлениями экстремизма и разжигания национальной и межэтнической розни, культивирует чувства вседозволенности и безнаказанности у лиц, совершающих эти деяния.
The computerization of Russian society and the growth in the number of Internet users creates a need to update Russian laws in order to ensure that they effectively meet modern challenges and threats. […] State authorities are charged with battling any manifestation of extremism and ethnic or national conflict, and an inadequate response to the distribution of extremist materials on the Internet cultivates a sense of permissiveness and impunity in the perpetrators of these acts.
Police action against “extremist retweeters” is nothing new in Russia. In February last year, police charged a figure in one of Russia’s smaller political parties with a hate crime for republishing a satirical LiveJournal post by Lev Sharansky, a parody Internet personality notorious for exaggerated political speech. Stas Kalinichenko, a blogger from Kemerovo, has been in and out of courts since last November for retweeting a photograph of an anti-government leaflet. Earlier this year, federal law enforcement officers arrested a philosophy professor at Moscow State University for reposting in an online forum an article that discussed the possible overthrow of the Kremlin. Just this month, a trial began in the Siberian city of Barnaul in which state prosecutors have accused a political activist of “liking” (on a social network) a photograph deemed extremist.
These are just a few recent examples. There are others.
The legislation that will criminalize “extremist” retweets represents just the latest episode in the Kremlin’s Internet crackdown. This approach to law enforcement risks penalizing Internet users who repost materials without any intention to incite violence. Given the Russian government’s extremely broad understanding of “extremism,” outlawing such reposts also threatens any remotely anti-government online commentary with a police response.
For all the worrying conclusions one can draw about the Duma’s latest legislation, the most frightening truth may be that Russia’s law enforcement agencies don’t always wait for lawmakers to grant them formal authority when it comes to policing the Internet. In other words, we have no idea what police in Russia are up to online today.