No panicking: Internet and freedom of speech to be killed in Russia?
Last week, the entire world has celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Internet. In the meantime, the Russian legislators have adopted new laws restricting the development of the Russian-speaking segment of the world wide web. The 'fake news' and 'internet insults' laws adopted under the pretext of protecting the society from manipulations and threat, including external ones, violate the Constitution and some federal laws in relation to the right to search for, obtain, and use information. Furthermore, the bill on ‘sovereign Internet’ passed in the first reading by the State Duma leads us directly to self-isolation.
Expectedly, President Vladimir Putin has signed the laws earlier approved by the State Duma and the Council of the Federation and stipulating the blocking of Internet materials containing “false information” and insulting the society, national symbols, and governmental institutions of the Russian Federation. The authors of the new laws are Andrei Klishas, Chairman of the Committee for Constitutional Legislation and State Building of the Council of the Federation, his first deputy Lyudmila Bochkova, and Dmitry Vyatkin, a Deputy of the State Duma. The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights had objected to the laws emphasizing that they may lead to excesses and censorship.
‘Fakes’ and panic
Now “the distribution of knowingly false socially significant information under the disguise of trustworthy news in the media and informational and telecommunications networks – it this has created a risk of harm to the citizens and their assets, or a threat of mass violations of public safety, or a threat of disturbances or failure of vital infrastructure, banks, or power, industrial, or communication facilities, or has led to the above-mentioned consequences” – is punishable by a fine of 30 to 100 thousand rubles ($467–1.6 thousand) or 200 to 500 thousand rubles ($3.1–7.8 thousand) for legal entities.
The most severe fines are imposed if the false information has led to the death of injury of a person, mass violations of public order, or failure of vital infrastructure; in such situations, the fines may reach 1.5 million rubles ($23.4 thousand) for legal entities.
During the second reading of the bill in the State Duma, a “room for mistake” has been introduced for officially registered online media – i.e. the preliminary notification procedure enabling them to remove the false information and avoid blocking. The watchdog service will send requirements to remove certain materials to editorial offices; if such a requirement is not complied with “immediately”, the state agency would provide its web address to communications operators requesting to restrict the access to it.
In other words, the distribution of so-called ‘fake news’ has been equaled to calls for mass disturbances, extremism, or participation in unauthorized events – an extrajudicial blocking procedure for such resources is already in place.
According to the international journalism principles proclaimed by UNESCO, the people have the right to receive reliable information, and journalists must cover events objectively. In addition, the Federal Law of the Russian Federation On Mass Media prohibits journalists from using their rights “for concealment or falsification of socially significant information and distribution of rumors under the disguise of reliable information”.
There are other means of influencing the media in place as well: Articles 13.15 (abusing freedom of mass information) and 20.29 (production and dissemination of extremist materials) of the Administrative Code; Article 152 of the Civil Code (protection of the honor, dignity and business reputation); and Articles 137 (invasion of personal privacy), 128.1 (slander), 282 (incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as abasement of human dignity), 280 (public appeals for the performance of extremist activity), 205.2 (public calls for committing of terrorist activity or public justification of terrorism), and 212 (mass riots) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Overall, the responsibility for distribution of false information stipulated in the new bill duplicates numerous existing laws; not only is it excessive – but also provides grounds for additional arbitrary prosecution of people and organizations.
Host Artem Sheinin and his show on Channel One Russia
Similarly with many recent laws, the new bill is full of vague formulations. On the one hand, this is because of low qualification of lawmakers; on the other hand, this is done on purpose – to enable various interpretations and enforcement practices.
The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights notes that there is a significant difference between terms “unreliable information” and “false information”. According to the Supreme Court, false information involves statements about facts or events that hadn’t occurred in the mentioned period, while unreliable information involves statements not worthy to believe in. In other words, the reliability category largely pertains to the trustworthiness of the information source. It is up to the media outlet whether to care about its reputation or not. Similarly, information users do not have to trust all the news.
As a result, it is quite possible that mass media would be prosecuted for distribution of knowingly false information even though at the time of its distribution, they had reasons to believe that this information was accurate – especially in the absence of specific, comprehensive, and objective information. This refers to natural disasters, technogenic catastrophes, and other situations when even the respective governmental institutions don’t possess accurate and precise information.
It is also unclear how the risk of socially dangerous consequences listed in the bill would be determined.
And what time interval is meant by the term “immediately”?
Last year, the providers had 24 hours to notify the site owner – and the site owner had another 24 hours to remove the information. The new law requires to do this “immediately”; in case of a refusal or inaction of the site owner – that may be caused by technical reasons, lunch break, or night time – the information resource can be blocked. Furthermore, if the information web site is based on the popular http technology, the entire site – not the specific page with ‘false information’ – would be blocked.
Aleksander Zharov, Head of Roskomnadzor
Web sites not registered as mass media won’t have the possibility to “immediately” remove the false information – they would be blocked instantly. For resources not included in the registry of the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), the blocking procedure currently used for identified announcements of unauthorized mass events, calls for mass riots and extremism, and materials of ‘blacklisted’ organizations will be applied: the providers block the web site and concurrently notify its owner; if the fake news is removed, the resource may be unblocked. The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights believes that this discriminates the owners of such resources – they are deprived of the possibility to remove the misinformation voluntarily.
The removal of the information does not relieve from the penalty if the offense report was produced prior to the removal of the information.
Overall, reducing the situation to absurdity, the law makes it possible to punish for any analytical materials based not on facts – but on assumptions, including weather forecast that may not match the reality.
In defense, Deputy Dmitry Vyatkin, member of Edinaya Rossia (United Russia) Party and co-author of the ‘Klishas bill’, presented the data of Medialogia media company: according to it, the number of false news has exceeded 20 thousand in 2018. The Deputy agrees that this number includes jokes and pranks as well – but still, there are plenty of destabilizing information attacks, often from abroad, that “are actively supported in our country and really cause direct harm and losses, especially amid such tragic events as catastrophes in Kemerovo and Magnitogorsk”.
To remind: during the fire in Kemerovo-based Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) Trade Center on March 25, 2018 claiming lives of 60 people, mostly children, information started spreading that the real number of victims was times higher than the official figures. Later, it was established that the main source of such rumors was a Ukrainian pranker known as Evgeny Vol’nov – on the day of the tragedy, he had called to state institutions of Kemerovo on behalf of an EMERCOM officer and reported 300–400 victims. This has resulted in a massive word of mouth campaign involving not only relatives of missing people – but famous bloggers and celebrities as well.
This had happened amid the nearly complete silence of federal media outlets. This circumstance, combined with mistakes committed by the authorities in the course of the tragedy, prior to it, and after it, has brought people to a unauthorized protest rally in the center of the city. The people were outraged both by the tragedy and 'couldn’t care less' attitude of the officials.
If the people hadn’t felt themselves left one-on-one against the tragedy and the events were comprehensively and objectively covered by the official media, the spread of the false information about a large number of victims and public stir would be minimized.
Protest rally in Kemerovo
The Council for Civil Society and Human Rights notes that the optimal way to counter the spread of so-called ‘fake news’ is to operatively provide to the society the maximally complete official information and independent expert opinions. Administrative decisions made without proper public discussions increase the social instability in the society.
Take, for instance, the Magnitogorsk tragedy recognized a household gas-related accident. A Gazel minibus burst into flames and then exploded at an intersection; three persons were killed; and the law enforcement authorities did not provide their names. Witnesses told about armed and uniformed people near the burning vehicles, some users wrote on social networks about gunshots. On the same night, an apartment building was secured and its residents – evacuated. Znak.com wrote, citing its sources in enforcement structures, that an explosion in Kontinent (Continent) Trade Center was prevented, and then the operatives have identified the Gazel minibus used by the terrorists and neutralized them. The security perimeter around the building on Lenina street allegedly was linked with the searches for one of the suspects – who was later killed. Andrei Kiyatkin, Deputy Head of the Administration for the City Magnitogorsk of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation, told a Novaya Gazeta newspaper journalist that the absence of official statements was caused by secret operations carried out in the city. Concurrently, many state-run media outlets and social network pages started publishing information that any alternative versions of the explosion are specially disseminated ‘fakes’.
Magnitogorsk home destroyed by the blast
There are other examples when not the panic – but public discussion (the bill authors apparently believe that this is the same) – had helped to attract the attention to a problem.
In late December 2018, a dysentery outbreak occurred in Moscow kindergartens. Many children were hospitalized in serious condition, some even were critically ill. Their parents were discussing the problem with each other and addressed governmental institutions and media outlets – but the only result was the placing of one kindergarten in quarantine due to an acute respiratory viral infection. Disbelieving the officials and domestic medicines, the parents addressed independent laboratories. The tests of children’s specimens have identified Shigella dysenteriae bacterium – the agent of dysentery. However, there was still no reaction from the authorities – although, according to independent sources (Radio Liberty, Anti-Corruption Foundation, and social networks), – 500 to 1000 children have contacted the disease in the Southeastern Administrative District alone.
Finally, by February, the problem has escalated to the federal level. The Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) confirmed the mass poisoning of children in Moscow. According to the preliminary findings, the disease was caused by cottage cheese produced in the Lipetsk region.
On February 21, a round table was held in the Public Chamber of Moscow dedicated to the catering issues in kindergartens. The Moscow authorities have finally reacted to the situation. A criminal case was instituted. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has commented the story on his VKontakte page as follows: “I have the situation under control since the first day”.
The expression of various hypotheses during high-profile events is normal for the people and does not constitute a crime – the Constitution guarantees the freedom of mind and speech. In addition, many people in Russia do not believe the authorities and journalists. This is not surprising taking how much the Soviet and Russian authorities had concealed incidents leading to mass fatalities. In such situations, alternative information is spread very quickly.
Below is one of the most resent posts of politician Dmitry Gudkov (it may become the last one if the author is does not want the new law to be applied to him):
“Now it is time to panic. I have got an official conclusion of Kudrin’s All-Russia Civil Forum and All-Russia People’s Front in relation to the waste incineration plants to be built – initially, in the Moscow region and then throughout Russia. In brief, all of us will lose health because of these plants, while hundreds of thousands of people will die. Many people will give birth to ill children. Huge money will be needed to offset the harm inflicted by the construction. They are going to protect us from deadly emissions with activated charcoal; it is planned to transport hazardous incineration products (38% of the initial volume – 260 tons per day from each incineration plant) through the entire country – from the Moscow region to Tomsk.”
Therefore, another purpose of the new law is to support unpopular measures.
Historical parallels make it possible to identify the current socio-political stage. In July 1941, a few weeks after the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, an order was issued stipulating severe punishments for dissemination of false rumors scaring the population – 2–5 years in prison. A year later, in summer 1942, the notorious Order № 227 – known as “Not a Step Back!” and requiring to “annihilate cowards and panic mongers on the scene” – was issued.
The main questions are: who is going to decide what information is false and what is accurate in the new law and how is it going to be enforced?
According to the new bill, the Prosecutor General and his deputies are entrusted to know the ultimate truth. Upon discovery of lies threatening the public order on the Internet, they have to address Roskomnadzor who, in turn, must immediately send to the providers “a request to take measures to restrict access to the information resource”.
This is absurd and has nothing to do with legal standards. As the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights notes, the truth is always relative – i.e. what seems accurate today may turn out to be false tomorrow and vice versa. Take, for instance, the initial reports about the number of hostages in the Beslan School № 1 – prior to the assault, their number was significantly understated. Based on the new law’s logic, the Prosecutor’s Office has to ban this official information because it was false. It is necessary to note that the authorities are never held liable for incorrect information.
The right to decide what is truth and what is lie granted to the Prosecutor General’s Office is the essence of the new law – and it resembles George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. To remind again: part 5 of Article 29 of the Russian Constitution prohibits censorship.
Yuri Chaika, Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation
The second important aspect in the enforcement practice. In fact, the number of fake reports disguised as news became really big in recent years. From the scientific point of view, there is nothing strange in this: we are living in the epoch of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ – objective facts become less important for the public opinion formation than allusions to emotions and personal beliefs. Today, ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’ substitute official sources.
Furthermore, the users of such not-completely-objective information are satisfied with the current situation because, in the ‘post-truth’ era, the media offer them opinions matching their own view of the world. Various techniques are used to ‘tune’ the news. For instance, showing only one side of the situation and ignoring other important facts. Or using metaphorical and allegorical approaches to disassociate from the real event as much as possible. Some news are presented as very important, while others – really significant for the society – are not covered at all. Even misconceptions and outright lies are used in certain cases.
It is necessary to note though that fake information is not always a deliberate data corruption for propagandist purposes. Fake information may be considered a side products of the pluralism of opinions after the destruction of the state monopoly on the information. The Internet enables not only the official media – but ordinary people as well – to create news; as a result, information from private pages is quickly disseminated by big tabloids – sometimes, without proper verification. So-called ‘suggestion effect’ contributes to its spread: the same lie presented by numerous sources seems more trustworthy because “they cannot all be wrong”. People believe fake news because the Internet is considered a free information space not restricted by the censorship.
Humiliated and insulted
The second newly-approved bill stipulates punishment for dissemination of information in indecent form, harming the human dignity and morals, and expressing clear disrespect to the society, national symbols, Constitution, and state authorities. These amendments have been incorporated into Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (disorderly conduct).
The Prosecutor General’s Office shall determine the indecency degree – i.e. this agency is going to become a moral crusader as well.
Distributors of information “expressing clear disrespect” will be fined 30 to 100 thousand rubles ($467–1.6 thousand) if their actions don’t include elements of crime. A repeated commission of such offenses shall be punishable by a fine of 100 to 200 thousand rubles ($1.6–3.1 thousand) or administrative arrest for term of up to 15 days.
Apparently, the officials want to get apologies for everything or, at least, be confident that their Internet abusers are punished.
In fact, power brokers started making attempts to force everybody to respect themselves a long before the changes in our country and the Internet. In early 2007, Viktor Alksnis, then-Deputy of the State Duma, has launched a LiveJournal diary naively thinking that he remains a Deputy with all associated privileges in the online world. But he was knocked down a peg very quickly and named “a prize star-bearing asshole” in the course of a dispute.
The author of this characteristic was not going to hide – it was tarlith, a seasoned and famous blogger and concurrently historian Timofei Shevyakov, Ph.D. The insulted Deputy started threatening his opponent with criminal prosecution and the entire Russian Internet – with censorship. Alksnis reminded that federal Deputies are A-class civil servants (similarly with the President and Ministers) and promised to prosecute Shevyakov under Article 319 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (insult of a representative of power during the discharge by him of his official duties, or in connection with their discharge). The conflict has further escalated during the meeting between the Deputy and historian at a talk show broadcasted by one of the TV channels. After that, the Deputy’s account was hacked, all his entries removed, and only one obscene phrase shown instead.
In his new LiveJournal diary, Alksnis wrote:
“What has happened today is the most vivid confirmation of my words: Runet is facing censorship introduction because of the provocateurs who create – either due to their thoughtlessness or fulfilling tasks assigned to them by certain structures – conditions for censorship introduction”. He had also threatened to identify and prosecute all of them grievous articles of the Criminal Code.
In the course of the bill discussion, members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights have noted legal uncertainty of the term: “express clear disrespect in indecent form” that may be interpreted very broadly. The “indecent form” may be equaled to obscenities or something else. The clause “harming the human dignity and public morals” added during the second reading of the bill does not specify the introduced term in any way. The legal meaning of the “clear disrespect” is obscure as well. For instance, it is unclear whether caricatures, anecdotes, sketches, and parodies would fall under the amended article or not.
The Internet community has immediately reacted to the new initiatives by asking whether the State Duma is going to introduce a reverse bill stipulating punishments for insults of ordinary people by representatives of power.
Olga Glatskikh: “Nobody had asked you to have kids”
Interestingly, Elizaveta, daughter of Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the President of Russia, was the first to positively react to the new bills approved by the State Duma.
“At least, a law on fake news has been adopted (for our family, this is very actual),” – Elizaveta wrote in her Instagram.
In fact, Liza Peskova may now be prosecuted for fake new as well: she claims that the picture was taken in a restaurant on Tverskaya street, while based on the interior and inscriptions on the windows, it was Au Vieux Bruxelles Restaurant in Belgium.
Valentina Matvienko, Chairperson of the Council of the Federation, has made a joke in this regard as well: «Our people are extremely talented, smart, and creative. Just yesterday, ‘the Klishas law’ was approved – and today new memes appeared: “If you criticize the power structures, they will prosecute you for insulting the authorities; if you praise them, they will prosecute you for disseminating fake news. In both cases, you are punished». The audience broke into laughter.
It is obvious that the purpose of the laws further restricting freedoms is to scare Internet users. The next steps of the authorities are easily predictable and already announced: registration of telephones and tablets, Internet access by passports, ‘white lists’ of web sites, and total restrictions or isolation from the outer world in the end.
The most sovereign Internet
In the end of 2018, concurrently with the bills on fake news and insults to the authorities, another bill dubbed “law on sustainable Runet” by the legislators and “law on sovereign Internet” by the general public was introduced to the State Duma. This is a large package of amendments to the Laws On Communication and On Information. Unlike the two other bills, it has just passed the first reading in the parliament.
According to the authors, the bill will guarantee the operation of the Russian Internet in case of its shutdown from the outside. The memo explains that this involves the creation of some (apparently, new) traffic routing rules and minimization of data transfer abroad during communications between Russian users.
Communication operators must ensure the possibility of centralized traffic administration if an emergency arises. The technical means would restrict access to resources with prohibited information not only by their IP addresses – but also through the traffic blocking.
Infrastructure should be established to ensure the operation of Russian Internet resources in case of an impossibility for Russian communication operators to connect to foreign root servers.
If adopted, this law would enable the authorities to switch, if necessary, to the ‘manual control’ over the Russian Internet segment, including isolation from the world wide web and filtering of the interior traffic. Such a ‘switch’ may leave operating only web sites whose servers are located in Russia and select from them those needed by the authorities.
Aleksander Bastyrkin, Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, searches for criminals on the Internet
To put it bluntly, if this law is approved, Roskomnadzor would control the entire Russian Internet. The agency is not mentioned in the draft bill directly, but based on the description, it is meant by “the federal executive authority controlling and overseeing the mass media, mass communications, informational technologies, and telecommunications”.
The Audit Chamber of the Russian Federation has criticized the bill. It believes that its approval would case a significant price hike on the telecommunications market. Experts from Digital Economy organization founded by the government believe the measures proposed in the document would only increase the instability risk for the Russian Internet. The creation of a critical point in the traffic routing system may lead to malfunctions in the national communication system. The experts emphasized that the operators would be responsible for the communication quality. Furthermore, the installation of additional equipment required for the project would increase the load on the infrastructure.
The financial aspect is also pretty controversial. The initial version of the document had stated that the bill implementation won’t require any additional budget spendings. Then Klishas said that it requires 20 billion rubles ($311.1 million) per year. However, experts of Communications and IT have calculated that the required sums are times – up to 134 billion rubles ($2.1 billion) per year.
Are all these risks and costs justified?
In theory, it is possible to significantly disturb the operation of the Russian Internet – if not shut it down – from the outside. For instance US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) distributing domain names has a technical possibility to do so. In this particular case, this refers to upper “ru” and “рф” domains. But even if it happens, this cannot be considered ‘shutting down’ the Internet in a country because the equipment uses IP addresses, not domain names. Russian companies get IP addresses via independent Amsterdam-based RIPE NCC, the Regional Internet Registry for Europe.
There were no such precedents – blocking of an entire country – in the Internet history. In addition, should the registry decided to withdraw blocks of IP addresses from Russia, this would disturb Internet operations in other countries as well. If fact, such arbitrary measures may destroy the existing Internet structure – all countries would launch their own ‘sovereign Internet’ projects after that. The main advantage of the current version of the Internet is that it does not have a single ‘control center’ enabling to perform such actions.
The series of restrictive laws adopted in Russia in the recent years are not initiatives of individual Deputies. We believes that this is a long-term plan with the purpose to bring the Runet to a certain shape. The above measures constitute a part of this plan. Therefore, there is no doubt that the bill is going to be approved and attempt will be made to implement it, including isolation from the outer world. One of the paragraphs of the proposed bill obliges state institutions and service providers to carry out respective drills on a regular basis.
Opponents of the ‘sovereign Internet’ blocked the Roskomnadzor office in St. Petersburg
Despite the statement made by Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov after protest rallies against the Internet isolation held on March 10 in Moscow and other major cities of Russia – claiming that both the bill authors, and Presidential Executive Officer, and Russian Government support the freedom of the Internet and nobody is willing to restrict it or limit the possibilities of the world wide web, – the national leadership has a different opinion on this matter. On February 20, Vladimir Putin said as follows:
“...I cannot say for our partners what is in their minds. I think that this would inflict colossal damages and harm to them... They are sitting there; this is their invention; and everybody is listening, looking, and reading what are you talking and accumulate this information – but otherwise, they won’t”.
According to the chronology kept by Roskomsvoboda public organization against Internet censorship, back in 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev had objected “stupid restrictions on the Internet”. A year later, the State Duma has unanimously approved the Federal Law On Protection of Children Against Information Harming Their Health and Development – also know as ‘the law on black lists of web sites’. After returning to the Presidential chair, on July 28, 2012, Vladimir Putin has endorsed this odious bill, thus, introducing the extrajudicial blocking of Internet resources in Russia. This was the fist step in the drastic toughening up of the state policy in relation to the Internet.
Plenty of laws tightening the Internet censorship have been approved since then. For instance, a number of restrictive laws and regulations came into effect last year. This includes the so-called ‘law on messengers’ came. It requires Internet service providers to identify users by their mobile phone numbers, raises penalties for refusals to remove or block access to restricted information (up to 5 million rubles ($77.8 thousand) for individuals and up to 50 million rubles ($777.8 thousand) for legal entities). Another law imposes liability on operators of search engines for refusals to connect to the Registry of Restricted Sites and remove from the search results links to blocked resources. Amendments came into effect increasing liability for refusals to remove information prohibited by court verdicts. Other enacted amendments enable the authorities to extrajudicially block calls for unlawful acts posing threats to life and health of minors and other persons. In addition, there was a failed attempt to block Telegram.
North Korean Internet users
As said above, all the Internet-related laws approved in the last years are stages of a major program whose purpose remains unknown yet. There are some possible ‘model versions’ to be recreated by the Runet, including the Great Firewall of China and North Korean intranet having no access to the outer world. The Chinese system is more advanced – but it is unlikely that it can be established anywhere else in the world. From the very beginning, it was created with that ‘isolationist’ purpose under the strict governmental control. Typically for China, all best global platforms were copied, including sites, messengers, online marketplaces, etc. and used exclusively on the internal market.
Even without going into technical details, it is obvious that the ‘sovereign Internet’ won’t bring any good to us – similarly with the counter-sanctions restricting agricultural imports (i.e. depriving ourselves of European fruits and vegetables). The domestic agriculture started developing – but in the absence of competition, the quality has decreased, while the prices went up. In the global world, any ‘sovereign’ economy, science, or information environment are doomed to failure and lagging behind. The only hope is that the funds allocated for the ‘sovereign’ Internet are ultimately embezzled and forgotten until new legislative initiatives.