The New Blogger’s Law in Russia

While it isn’t the purpose of this site to publish political news or commentary on current events, this particular issue touched the students of the WordPress class at Clark College and they’ve asked the instructor to expand upon the discussion held in class on this topic.

Reporters Without Borders - World Press Freedom Barometers for 2104.The lives and welfare of bloggers and social media publishers are often restricted by local and national freedom of speech and censorship laws, labeled insurgents, protestors, and activists violating laws with the “goal of inciting riots or government overthrow.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Reporters Without Borders report frequently on the persecution, imprisonment, and attacks on bloggers and web publishers around the world, citing 27 journalists and “netizens and citizen journalists” killed and 174 journalists and 166 netizens imprisoned since the beginning of 2014 on their Press Freedom Barometer.

This past week, Russia has imposed the Internet Law, commonly known as the “blogger’s law,” imposing registration, site blocking, and harsher penalties against websites found to be inciting dissension in Russia.

Russian President Putin Puts Down Internet Freedoms

“The goal is to kill off the political blogosphere by the fall.” – blogger Andrei Malgin

A report called “World Press Freedom Index 2014 states that Russia is 148th out of 179 countries on their list rating government’s media freedom and rights, and anticipating an even lower score next year due to Putin’s “draconian legislation” and efforts to restrict freedom of speech and transparency within its borders.

In 2013, the Russian Federation government introduced a bill led by Putin that would block websites and blogs regarded as extremist and requiring registration of the site’s owner and contributors with a government agency known as Roskomnadzor, the communications oversight agency.

Putin’s views on Internet freedom is often contradictory. In February 2012, Valdimir Putin said, describing the Internet as a “whole CIA project:”

Negative phenomena exist everywhere, including on the Internet, and should not be used as a pretext to limit Internet freedom.

In a CNN article in 2013, Putin defended Russia’s record on freedom of speech in an annual televised call-in show on a Russian radio station. According to the news article he said:

“I don’t think we can see Stalinist elements here,” Putin responded. Stalin is recalled for “the personality cult and mass violation of law, reprisals, prison camps — we see nothing like that in Russia today and I hope we will never see that again. Our people will never allow that to happen again,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean we should have no discipline, no law and order — and all people in Russia should be equal before the law.”

…”No one puts anyone in prison for political reasons, for their political views. They get punished for violating the law. Everybody should observe the law.”

Human Rights Watch declared Putin “unleashed a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history” in a report on the new laws in development or passed in the 12 months since Putin regained the presidency.

In a May 2014 speech by Ambassador Daniel B. Baer to the Permanent Council of the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, he said:

The United States is deeply troubled by new laws that impose sweeping restrictions on the Internet and blogging in Russia. Reporters Without Borders has described the laws as an attempt to increase state control of online content. OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic has been strongly critical of the measures, which she said “curb freedom of expression and freedom of social media, as well as seriously inhibit the right of citizens to freely receive and disseminate alternative information and express critical views.” These new restrictions can only be seen for what they are – an attempt by the Russian government to limit freedom of expression and the ability to network and assemble. Indeed, the new restrictions limit the exercise of human rights of all Russians, not just journalists.

These are just the latest efforts by the Russian government to exert control over the rapidly shrinking space for independent voices in Russia both online and off-line…Laws passed in 2012 and 2013 that targeted websites, supposedly for reasons of fighting child pornography and “extremism,” are being used as pretexts for increased involvement by the Russian government in controlling the Internet.

President Putin recently reiterated his desire for replacing the globally interconnected Internet – the public square of the 21st century – with a system routing traffic through servers in individual countries, enabling ever-greater government control of information and opinion.

World-famous Russian chess player and chairman of the The Human Rights Foundation is well-known for attacking and criticizing Putin. His site, among many other outspoken critics of the Russian regime, were blocked intentionally for criticizing Russia’s president claiming that “these sites contain incitement to illegal activity and participation in public events held in violation of the established order.”

Kasparov’s article in The Washington Post, “It’s time to stop Putin,” is just one of many public outcries he’s made against Putin’s oppressive regime. In August 2013, Kaparov took Putin to task on Twitter with a scathing commentary on Putin’s article in the New York Times about Syria, saying:

I hope Putin has taken adequate protections. Now that he is a Russian journalist his life may be in grave danger!

Russia’s Blogger Law

In December 2013, the Russian parliament passed a law to allow the blocking of sites “calling for unauthorized demonstrations” without court notification or approval.

While there were many protests nationally and internationally to prevent the new “blogger’s law” from passing, it passed the first week in May 2014.

The new law describes the term “blogger” for the first time:

A person who posts open information on a personal page.

This is a literal translation that basically means a blogger is anyone publishing “open information” on a web page.

With more than 61 million online users in Russia, it’s growing online economy and industry is threatened by by such strict media rules and regulations.

The new rules outlined in the bill state the following, applicable to the so defined “bloggers:”

  • Any site with more than 3,000 visits a day qualifies.
  • Such a site must register.
  • Any site (and its domain name) may be cancelled if found to be “inciting violence, “extremist” activity, advocating overthrow of the government, activity in conflict with human dignity or religious beliefs.”
  • Any site found to be in compliance with the above has three days to take down content. Non-compliance and two additional warnings will result in the terminiation of the site.
  • Applicable site types include blogs and social media networks and channels.
  • Pseudonyms are not permitted. Site owners and contributors must publish with their surname, initials, and email address publicly displayed.
  • All articles must be fact-checked before publishing, confirm the accuracy of the information, and respect electoral law, among other laws similar to those required of journalists.
  • Bloggers are accountable when writing about individuals, organizations, or the government with the intent to “defame or libel.”
  • Bloggers are held responsible and libel for comments posted on their web pages.
  • Fines range from USD $280 to $850, with “legal entities” fined up to $8,500.
  • A hotline is being established to encourage citizens to report “illegal or harmful” online content.

There is much confusion over the vague nature of these laws and rules. For instance, is it 3,000 visits as in pageviews, visitors, unique visitors, unique visits, etc? Does this apply to all websites or only specific types of sites and social media channels? Does this include mockery or satire? How does a blogger blog about the opposition as news and discuss issues prior to an election? What does fact-checking really mean? How far does a blogger have to go to provide proof they are telling “the truth?”

Global Voices reported on the ban, explaining:

Forbidden blogging would include everything from conveying approval of terrorism to using obscenities. Websites would be expected to fact-check anything they publish, likely making life impossible for the countless Russian blogs that peddle conspiracy theories and compromising rumors about Russia’s rich and powerful. Bloggers would also become accountable for any damage done by their writing to the reputations of individuals and organizations, portending a flood of lawsuits by Russia’s very litigious politicians.

Anti-Putin blogger, Andrei Malgin said:

The goal is to kill off the political blogosphere by the fall.

LiveJournal, a popular publishing platform for Russians, announced compliance with the new rules in Russia by no longer displaying the number of subscribers a blog has if the figure exceeds 2,500, even though the law implies 3,000 visits not subscribers, adding to the confusion.

Purchased in 2007 from a US company by SUP Media, a Russian company, it is estimated that LiveJournal hosts about 700,000 Russian blogs, including those by opposition groups and individuals. The servers are still based physically in the United States, coming under US jurisdiction and laws, making it challenging for Russia to impose the new laws on the service.

In March, before the new “blogger’s law” went into effect, older laws were used to block and shutter three opposition news portals in Russia for “illegal activity and participation in mass events that are conducted contrary to the established order.” Other recent sites blocked include a popular opposition blogger, and the firing of several news sites’ editors and journalists, considered part of the opposition, as well as the head of Russia’s Facebook equivalent.

The NonProfilt Quarterly spoke to a Russian blogger on the issue:

Anton Nosik, a prominent Russian blogger and online media expert, told Reuters that Russia’s drive to close off the country from the Internet is rooted in a desire “to restrict free information exchange, restrict expression of opinion, be it in written text, speech or video. They want to restrict everything because they’re headed towards the ‘glorious past.’” He also compares Russia’s new Internet policy unfavorably with China’s, which is no landmark of openness.

Organizers of the dissemination of information,” the new term created by Russia’s “blogger’s law,” is used to define blog platforms, such as WordPress.com, LiveJournal, and SquareSpace (and their Russian equivalent), and social networks like Facebook and Twitter (and Russian equivalent). By law, they are now required to store user activity history for a minimum of six months, and make it available to authorities upon request.

As for international Internet companies, platforms, and social networks based outside of Russia? Many are convinced that blocking or restricting these sites and services is “a matter of time.”

Restricting Freedom of Speech and Criticism Online

Banning and criminalizing bloggers is not new to Russia. In 2008, Sawa Terentyev (22) of Siktivkar in Russia was accused of “inciting racial and religious hatred and word abusing of law-enforcement authorities” and abusing “people publicly by means of mass media.” Found guilty, his LiveJournal “immoral and abusive” comment was made on the blog of a local journalist on an article about a raid by police on a local opposition newspaper:

…an animated, extremely tasteless comment suggesting corrupt militsiya officers be burned daily in every town center…

His alleged offense, inciting hatred and denigrating the human dignity of a social group (namely, the militsiya), seemed absurd to internet users familiar with the casual and frequently vulgar level of discourse found online. His maximum sentence, a significant fine and two years behind bars, seemed excessive.

After a convoluted trial where prosecutors struggled to find extremism in Terentyev’s words, authorities asked that the blogger receive a suspended sentence, or probation, of one and a half years. Lada Luzan, the state prosecutor…asked that Terentyev’s sentence be suspended, since he admitted authorship of the internet comment, which the prosecution was not expecting.

The prosecution was first of its kind in Russia. Putin and his government have been escalating the laws to censor and restrict freedom of speech on the web ever since, cracking down on perceived dissidents.

Threatened Voices profile on Savva Terentyev - screenshot.

In 2012, Putin passed a law making defamation a criminal offense with mandated fines for producing “defamatory public statements.” The law on “Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection” increased Internet censorship and restricted freedom of expression, and amendments expanded the definition of treason, “making it so vague as to enable the government to brand a critic as a traitor.”

“The new policy is to restrict free information exchange, restrict expression of opinion, be it in written text, speech or video. They want to restrict everything because they’re headed towards the ‘glorious past’,” Anton Nosik, a prominent Russian blogger and online media expert, told Reuters.

In the summer of 2013, Russia adopted laws penalizing “offending religious beliefs and feelings” and banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” In December, the parliament was close to passing a law to make expressing “separatist opinions” in the media punishable by five years in prison.

Another bill awaiting approval will ban negative content online regarding World War II veterans, Russian armed forces, and the authority of the state by “offending patriot feelings.” Designating media as a “foreign agent” if they get more than 25% of their funding from foreign entities is being studied to put into law soon.

Decency Laws: Banning Swearing in Russia

Taking effect on July 1, 2014, a new law bans the use of swearing on television, movies, arts, and web pages. Books with swear words must carry warnings on the cover to alert potential buyers of the “decadent” content.

According to BBC news:

The law harks back to the conservatism of the Soviet period, when the Communist Party required artists and writers to avoid “decadent” Western fashions and to stick to traditional values.

Traders who fail to give consumers warnings about swearing in videos or other audiovisual products will risk having their licenses withdrawn.

The BBC also reported that a “swearbot” is being created to monitor online content for swear words and “indecent content.” Currently the effort to remove online obscenity is being done by human scanners searching the web for such illegal content. The swearbots are due to start filtering and searching the Russia web by Fall 2014.

The Izvestia newspaper, considered the official voice of the Soviet government, reported:

The country’s Academy of Science says the law applies to “obscene references to the male and female reproductive organs, copulation and women of loose morals, and all words derived from them” – a genre in which Russian vocabulary is particularly rich.

One commenter notes that expletives are part of everyday speech. “If they ban swearing in Russia, all technical progress will grind to a halt,” he says. “Warehouses will close and the army will lose its combat readiness. For our Motherland, it will be the end,” he adds, deploying a euphemism that sails close to the official guidelines.

How Does This Impact WordPress Students?

The WordPress I course at Clark College features article writing and blogging assignments, as well as adherence to web standards and US law on web accessibility. The course also covers legal policies including laws around social media, web publishing, and comments.

WordPress I is a fundamental and required course for the web design and web development degrees. The outcomes of the degree programs and course are designed to prepare the student for freelance and employment in the web design and development industry, among other business industries that touch the web. Understanding domestic and international laws concerning web publishing and social media are essential to that process.

In discussions with the students on the subject of the Russian “blogger’s law,” many students were shocked to learn that such activities happened around the world, and compared these draconian laws to Hitler and the Nazis. It also helped them understand better the roles and responsibilities they face in the web publishing industry when it comes to working with international clients.

References: How Russia Sees the Crackdown on Bloggers

The following articles are the English translation of Pravda, the Russian political newspaper associated with and representing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. “Pravda” translates literally to “the truth.” These articles cover blogger’s rights and related news as “Russia sees it.” Please note that these are provided as examples and for educational information, not as factual reference documents or content.

Russia’s Blogger’s Law and Government Prosecution of Bloggers: References

For more information on the Russian law and other reports of censorship and other government crackdowns on bloggers, see:

United States and Internet Censorship

The United States also prosecutes and penalizes bloggers and citizen journalists. The following is information for educational purposes about online censorship, limits, and penalties in the United States:

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