The Russian Duma has passed further legislation strictening internet usage, forcing internet users to post identities and contact information as well as adhere to the requirements applied to mass media outlets and be held responsible for the comments of other users. Critics have expressed concern that the legislation will further chill free expression in what is said to be the “last island of free expression” in the country.
The potential for selective punitive use of the law is the concern of human rights advocates, who say that the law, which passed April 22 and will take effect in August, is incompatible with freedom of expression. “If enforced,” said the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, “the proposed amendments [to the existing Russian internet restriction law 139-FZ ] would curb free expression of social media” and inhibit the rights of citizens to use alternative information and express critical views.
Two of the provisions included in the new legislation are exactly those warned against by Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who reported to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 that requiring users to register their real identities and requiring service providers to retain users personal data are among registration and licencing requirements that “cannot be justified [for] the internet.” La Rue called on countries to refrain from requiring users to provide this information so that users could freely express themselves without fear of retribution or condemnation.
The new law requires all internet users with over 3,000 daily visitors–including social media visitors such as those on Twitter or Facebook–which the law calls “bloggers,” to provide contact details on their websites, including their real names and contact details. Bloggers must register with Russia’s control service Roskomnadzor, and will be constrained by the same legal strictures as apply to mass media outlets. Bloggers will be responsible for verifying the accuracy of information, indicating minimum user ages, protecting privacy information, and adhering to propaganda restrictions regarding support for electoral candidates. Bloggers will also be held accountable for comments posted to their sites or social media pages by third parties.
Fines for failure to adhere to the requirements range between 10 and 30 thousand rubles for individual offenders and 300,000 rubles for legal entities on a first offense. This is equivalent to US$280-840 and US$8,400. Subsequent offences can be fined with amounts roughly double those for initial offenses.
“Bloggers” in the Russian law includes internet users who microblog, such as users of Twitter, Facebook and VKontakte. Services bloggers use are required by the law to store records of blogger activity for six months.
Although bloggers will be held to the same strict requirements as mass media outlets, they will not have the same protections and privileges.
There has been opposition to the law from the upper levels of Russian government. The presidential human rights council and Russia’s ombudsman criticized the law as potentially abusive of human rights, and have framed the law within the context of a broad Russian clampdown on free internet usage in Russia. Similar opposition was expressed by President Vladimir Putin’s staff during the passage of previous strictening laws, including the current internet legislation that was amended Tuesday.
By Day Blakely Donaldson
Human Rights Watch