Russia Increases Attempts to Regulate Internet


Open Source Center Analysis
March 27, 2008

Three bills under consideration in the Federal Asssembly suggest the government is considering extending its control over the Internet, particularly the blogosphere, one of the few alternative sources of information and collaboration open to the opposition in the face of increasing government control of the mainstream media. The bills have aroused some public controversy and even apparent opposition from some senior officials, with one of the proposed laws already being amended to remove provisions affecting the Internet. Government proponents have tried to reassure Internet users that these bills would not lead to censorship or limits on Internet access.

Limits on Foreign Investment in Internet Rejected

The amendment to the law "On the Order of Foreign Investment in Companies and Organizations Having Strategic Importance for National Security," sponsored by the Duma Committee on Building and Land Relations, would have expanded the number of sectors of the Russian economy that are considered "strategically important to national security" to include the Internet and publishing, thereby limiting foreign investment in the two sectors. According to Vedomosti sources, Vladislav Surkov, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, was the driving force behind the expansion of the list of strategically important sectors (5 March). The amendment passed the first reading last fall. However, on 16 March, shortly before the second reading, committee chair Martin Shakkum announced that the committee would remove the section of the law covering Internet providers. An unnamed Vremya Novostey source stated that President-Elect Dmitriy Medvedev’s involvement in the issue precipitated the decision to drop the provision covering the Internet (17 March).

The previous version of the amendment would have required foreign investors wishing to purchase more than 50% of a Russian company related to the Internet to obtain the approval of the Russian Government. Any investor company in which a foreign government has a stake would have had to gain permission for a purchase of more than 25%. The law would not have been retroactive; however, companies with foreign investors who own more than 5% would have had to inform the government of that fact (Gazeta.ru, 5 March).

Shakkum did not say whether the section of the amendment covering publishing would be changed. If the amendment is adopted in its current form, foreign companies wishing to invest in publications would only face limitations if the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service deems their position in the market "dominant," meaning that any of three companies controlling 50% of the market together or any of 5 companies controlling 70% together (Gazeta.ru, 5 March).

Despite support for the amendment from some Duma deputies and the fact that the law was proposed by a Duma committee, several officials and experts from various fields strongly criticized it, calling it harmful and senseless.

Duma Deputy Gennadiy Gudkov, a Just Russia member of the Security Council in the Duma, raised concerns that the bill’s Internet provisions would cause Russian Internet resources to be moved to the shadow market. "I do not understand how such a law can function in relation to electronic mass media and Internet publications. The location of servers has no importance for electronic mass media….They can be moved outside of Russia and such a move would have no effect on their work," he maintained (Gazeta.ru, 5 March).

Leonid Bershidskiy, the owner of KIT-Finance, asserted that even if the limits to investment in publishing concerns were adopted, they would not have any effect because no Russian publication matches the criteria outlined in the law: "Every company dreams of creating a publication that would gain 50% of the market but no one has succeeded so far….If someone did decide to limit the presence of foreign investors on the market for print media, that would bear witness to the even lower level of liberalism of the new authorities compared to the old. But I do not think that will happen" (Gazeta.ru, 5 March).

Leonid Reyman, minister of Information and Communications, criticized the previous version of the amendment, stating: "I feel that there is no benefit in any kind of restrictions. This will lead to a situation in which the Internet will pull out of our country." (Vremya Novostey, 17 March)

Amendment to Law "On Mass Media" Raises Concerns

Vladimir Slutsker, deputy chairperson of the Joint Commission on National Policy and Cooperation of Governments and Religious Unions of the Federation Council, announced the planned amendment to the law on mass media on 11 February. If passed, the amendment would give any electronic media which has more than 1,000 hits per day the status of mass media, thus making them subject to laws on mass media such as the law on extremism. The 1,000 hit per day threshold was determined based on the current legal threshold of a distribution of 1,000 copies or more per day for print media. The sponsors of the amendment stated that the goal of the law is to control the spread of child pornography, libelous information, as well as terrorist and other extremist information (Strana.ru, 11 February).

Amid controversy and outcry provoked by news of the draft, supporters of the bill attempted to assuage fears that it would lead to censorship, promising that the law would not affect sites that are "not information sources." They also promised that the bill would be put up for discussion by members of the Internet community prior to being passed.

On 11 February, Slutsker gave a very broad definition of sites to be covered: "Any regularly updated Internet site can be included in the understanding of mass media, including personal diaries, various forums and chats including, for example, dating sites" (Gzt.ru, 11 February). However on 12 February he backed off, stating: "The amendments to the law ‘On the Mass Media,’ which were discussed today by the Internet community, only concern sites which are in fact Internet mass media although they are not registered at the moment…The blogosphere, dating sites, and search engines will not fall under that law because they are not mass media" (SMI.ru).

Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the Duma and leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, said that no limits on the spread of information on the Internet should be enacted: "As concerns the Internet, in no way should there be an attack on its freedom." However, he asserted that security must take precedence, stating: "We know that the Internet is all too often used as an instrument for destabilization and for terrorism. That kind of use of the Internet must be stopped" (Newsru.com, 12 February).

Bloggers expressed varying degrees of alarm over the potential danger the law would pose to their community, with some alleging Slutsker is trying to use the law to silence his opponents and dismissing the law as unlikely to be passed.

Blogger may-antiwar wrote: "As soon as a site becomes mass media we will be threatened not only with immediate shut down but also unpleasant personal sanctions under the law ‘On extremism’ and we will become political prisoners. They have declared war on our resource" (may-antiwar.livejournal.com, 27 February).

Blogger Viking-nord asserted that Slutsker "just wants to get even with the Antikompromat.ru site, on which the journalist (Oleg) Lurye insulted the family of the senator." (1) The blogger called the initiative "extremely stupid" and claimed that "over the last five years there were 20 such initiatives and no one ever passed one of them" (Viking-nord.livejournal.com, 11 February).

Internet sites, like bloggers, expressed their concern that the law would lead to the closure of Internet resources and ridiculed the 1,000 hits per day figure. Newsru.com, a popular Internet news site associated with exiled media magnate Gusinskiy, warned: "After the adoption of such a law, being on the Internet will make one subject to the Criminal and Administrative Codes and any critical comment directed at the authorities could become defamation or libel. This could lead to the closure of Internet forums and their owners could be punished for opinions expressed by forum participants if they are deemed extremist" (12 February). Strana.ru, a news website owned by the government’s TV and radio broadcasting company VGTRK, opined: "To anyone who is at all familiar with the Internet, such an idea is absurd. Internet sites with more than 1,000 hits per day number in the thousands on the Russian net and far from all of those are information resources. There are social networks, online journals, employment searches, forums, Internet stores, file hosting…It is not clear how and more importantly why one should register them as mass media" (11 February).

Draft Bill "On the Internet" Mulled

On 29 January the Federation Council Commission on Information Policy discussed a draft law entitled "On the Internet," written by the Center for Internet Technology (ROTsIT) and the Electronic Communications Association for the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of Governments from the CIS. The bill would create a model law that would outline fundamental concepts, terminology, and directives for Internet standards. According to the text of the bill posted by Lenta.ru, the law will "define the system of government support for the Internet, designate participants in the process of regulating the Internet as well as their functions when regulating, and define the guidelines designating places and times of the performance of legally significant actions upon use of the Internet" (Lenta.ru, 29 January). Gazeta.ru reported that the Federation Council would consider the bill in March (29 January).

Pro-government supporters of the draft bill presented it as necessary to prevent Internet crime and tried to reassure citizens that the law is not intended to enact censorship and will not limit access to Internet.

Putin ally and commission chairperson, Lyudmila Narusova, began the meeting by attempting to reassure possible critics of the law, stating: "I want to disappoint those who think that our bill is directed at repressive measures, at putting pressure on or blocking someone." She argued that the primary goal of the bill is to outline fundamental concepts and regulate a "series of things on the Internet, because, in the wrong hands, this could lead to various forms of crimes." She cited the spread of child pornography, instructions in how to make explosive devices as examples (Gazeta.ru, 29 January).

Sergey Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party and speaker of the Federation Council, promised: "It is necessary to regulate this sphere, but there can be no censorship of the Internet" (Gazeta.ru, 29 January). Yuriy Sharandin, head of the Federation Council Committtee on Constitutional Legislation, stated: "It is not only possible but necessary to regulate the content…not preemptively because then it would be censorhip, but by punishment for breaking the laws, for example, on the distribution of pornography, and inciting racism or ethnic discord" (Gazeta.ru, 29 January).

Internet sites reacted in various ways to the news on the draft bill "On the Internet," with some predicting government censorship and others declaring that the law would not be repressive. Forum.msk.ru, a leftist, nationalist website featuring political news and rumors, raised concerns about the law’s provisions for a national registry that can "simply annul a domain name because the contents of the site violate the laws of a third country." The editors concluded: "In fact serious censorship of the Russian Internet…is being proposed" (1 February). Novyy Region, a nongovernment news website covering regional events, emphasized that no repression was planned: "Despite all the fears connected to possible censorship of the net, it seems that the goal of the new draft law is not the limiting of freedom of information, but will touch on Internet terminology. According to the authors of the law, there is no immediate need for government interference in the Internet" (29 January).

Some bloggers warned that a law regulating the Internet would lead to Internet censorship similar to that of China and cautioned the government against interfering.

Anton Nosik, head of blogging at SUP-Media and well-known Russian Internet figure, warned that "the adoption of a single law on the Internet will lead to the same limit on Internet activity as in China." Instead, he recommended making separate updates to the Civil or Criminal Codes (Gazeta.ru, 29 January).

Responding to Nosik’s blog post, dudinov wrote: "The draft bill is technically illiterate" and reflects "the desire of specific individuals in the Federation Council to talk themselves up and of others to forbid things….Our Union of Webmasters of Russia and I have started actively to educate ‘lawmakers’ on the dangers of regulating what works well and is developing on its own" (dolboeb.livejournal.com, 29 January). Implications The increased attention to the Internet suggests that the Kremlin is considering greater control over the heretofore largely free medium. However, the scaling back of sections of the bills suggests that the Kremlin is proceeding cautiously, sending up trial balloons in the Federal Assembly through United Russia. This could also reflect a divergence within the Kremlin over the approach to the Internet given that Medvedev was credited with the changes to the bill supposedly pushed by Surkov.

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