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How Safe Are Internet Search Engines from Russian Censorship?

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

The Russian legislator largely responsible for a host of controversial laws, including bans on obscenities in films, foreign adoptions of Russian orphans, and restrictions on “gay propaganda,” is back with a new idea: demanding that Internet search engines be held accountable for the content they index.

According to Duma deputy Elena Mizulina, Russia's child-protection laws should apply to Google, Yandex, and their rivals. Mizulina noted that the Russian state (along with law enforcement officials) has the authority to shut down websites containing information deemed harmful to children. In addition to child pornography, which is illegal nearly worldwide, this policy covers web content on suicide, drugs, and homosexuality.

In November 2012, the Kremlin's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, declined to hold Internet search engines responsible for the content they index. Mizulina said earlier this month that she thinks the agency lost its nerve, adding that it's not too late to enforce the law as it was intended.

Я понимаю, что на 2012 год, когда закон только вводился в действие, было много страха, но сейчас ситуация иная, к тому же международный опыт свидетельствует четко о том, что нужно вводить более жесткие требования.

I understand there were many fears in 2012, when the law was just entering force. But today the situation is different, and international experience gives us clear evidence that it’s necessary to impose stricter requirements [on the Internet].

Mizulina hasn't specified what “international experience” she has in mind, but Roskomnadzor has said it will consider her suggestion. The agency’s deputy head, Maksim Ksenzov, also promised to review the matter with Russia's Communications Ministry.

It remains unclear what consequences search engines might face in Russia if the law is reinterpreted to apply to their indexing policies, but the recent experience of Google in the EU helps to color the picture. In May of 2014, the EU Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling in favor of the “right to be forgotten.” The ruling required Google to build a system that allows individuals in the EU to request that the company remove certain results from its searches when these results contain personal information that is either outdated or no longer considered “relevant.” While the case at hand stems from a different type of content, it touches on many of the same fundamental issues surrounding the liability of information intermediaries.

Oleg Yashin, the vice-president of Russian Shield, an intellectual-property organization, provided some details about what regulatory changes might be in store. One possibility, he says, is that search engines will be required to purge or discriminate against search results containing blocked websites or illegal data. Yashin claims Yandex is starting this May and June to test ways to filter search results, and Roskomnadzor is supposedly expected to assess the mechanism afterwards.

Mizulina says she worries most about search results that lead Internet users to child pornography and information about suicide and illegal drugs. She points out regularly that Internet companies in the West already make efforts to remove such content, asking rhetorically, “What—are our children less deserving of protection?”

While companies like Microsoft and Google do work to eliminate access to things like child pornography, granting new censorship powers to the Russian government raises special concerns, given Moscow's recent track record for reinterpreting Internet laws in ways that inhibit civic freedoms online.

On May 29, lawmakers introduced draft legislation to create a “right to be forgotten” in Russia that would require Internet search engines to delete links to data about individuals upon request. While and Google have refused to comment on the initiative before more is known about its details, Yandex told the news website Meduza that such a law would violate constitutional rights to information and saddle search engines with unreasonable and unusual legal burdens. The offending information, Yandex says, will remain online regardless, disseminated on websites like social networks.

Russia's current era of Internet governance started almost three years ago, when President Putin signed a law creating a state registry for banned websites. Originally, the blacklist was meant for specific kinds of generally apolitical content, but subsequent laws and generous regulatory interpretations have led to an expanding crackdown on opposition websites, Ukrainian Web resources, and more. Forcing Internet search engines to censor results based on this growing list of banned websites could have a significant impact on Russians’ access to alternative sources of news and opinion.

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