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Russia Plans to Fine Websites for ‘Propaganda’ of Circumvention Tools

The Kremlin is so worried about internet circumvention tools it now seeks to make mere mentions of them illegal. Image edited by Tetyana Lokot.

The Kremlin is so worried about internet circumvention tools it now seeks to make mere mentions of them illegal. Image edited by Tetyana Lokot.

Tor. VPNs. Website mirroring. The mere mention of these and other online tools for circumventing censorship could soon become “propaganda” under proposed amendments to Russian law.

Russian state media regulator Roscomnadzor plans to introduce fines for “propaganda” of online circumvention tools that allow users to access blocked webpages. The changes also equate “mirror” versions of blocked websites with their originals.

According to news outlet RBC, which claims to possess a copy of the draft document, Roscomnadzor would punish “propaganda” of circumvention tools online with fines of 3,000-5,000 rubles (USD $43-73) for individuals or officials, and fines of 50,000-100,000 rubles (USD $730-1460) for corporate entities. While the proposed fines may not be exorbitant, they set a dangerous precedent for the future.

Beyond restricting tips on accessing blocked websites, the bill also defines “mirror websites” and allows copyright holders to ask the court to block both the original website containing “pirated” content and all of its mirrors—”derivative websites” that have similar names and content, including those translated into other languages.

In February 2016, Russian copyright holders suggested a similar draft bill mandating a fine of 50,000 rubles (USD $730) for ISPs that published information about circumvention. At the time, the bill's creators claimed Roscomnadzor supported the bill, but the state regulator denied it.

Circumvention crackdown is bad for free speech

On the surface, Roscomnadzor's new bill seems to be aimed at protecting copyright holders and limiting access to pirated content online. But the implications of banning circumvention tools would be far greater. Russian officials have debated restrictions on VPNs and anonymizers for quite a while, but have so far stopped shy of branding the tools—or information about them—as illegal.

As with other Internet-related legislation in Russia, experts see the new amendments as deliberately overreaching and broad, making them ripe for abuse and further restrictions on free speech.

…if the legislative changes were applied “literally,” many innocuous pages with mere mentions of circumvention technology could be branded as “propaganda.”

Irina Levova, director for strategic projects at the Institute of Internet Research, told RBC that if the legislative changes were applied “literally,” many innocuous pages with mere mentions of circumvention technology could be branded as “propaganda.”

Levova believes Roscomnadzor and Russian copyright holders are deliberately pressuring ISPs in order to excessively regulate access to information online. According to her, Internet providers in Russia are technically capable of blocking up to 85% of websites on the RuNet, and any additional restrictive capability would involve mass IP-address blocking, which means even more law-abiding websites could suffer.

Kremlin's creeping war on anonymity

To date, the biggest row around circumvention tools on the RuNet erupted after the website of RosKomSvoboda, a Russian Internet freedom and human rights organization, was blocked.

In February 2016, the RosKomSvoboda website was added to the RuNet blacklist registry because of a page on the site that educates users on how to circumvent online censorship and access blocked materials. RosKomSvoboda said the blocking and the court ruling were absurd, since neither information about anonymizing tools, nor the services themselves, were forbidden by Russian law.

Vadim Ampelonsky, Roskomnadzor's spokesman, stressed that the ruling against RosKomSvoboda created a precedent, since the prosecutor in the case who was “in charge of enforcing anti-extremist legislation was able to prove that this information creates conditions for users to access extremist materials.” Ampelonsky said the ruling could inform the future work of prosecutors and courts, when it comes to policing information that helps Russians circumvent censorship.

It is worth nothing that just a month earlier, in January 2016, Ampelonsky told the news agency RBC TV that circumventing online censorship does not violate the law.

RosKovSvoboda's website was eventually unblocked after they changed the contents of their page with circumvention instructions. It now contains their report on the court battle and an official Ministry of Communications letter, which provides explanations for some of the circumvention tools that the page previously linked to and explained. The activists also moved information and links to some other anonymizing and encryption tools to a separate page for their Open RuNet campaign.

For now, Roscomnadzor's spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky has confirmed to RBC news that the regulator worked with a group of copyright owners in Russia to draft the amendments to Russia's law “On information, information technologies and protection of information” and the Administrative violations code. On March 17 the draft was discussed with Internet industry representatives at a Roscomnadzor roundtable on regulating the RuNet, with companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yandex and MailRu in attendance. The bill will now go to the Communications Ministry on March 21 before it moves to the Russian Duma for voting.

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