Targeting bloggers and tech companies alike, Russia continues web crackdown

by claire mcnear

Russia is continuing a recent crackdown on online communications, passing a series of new laws and amendments that target web platforms and their users.

Last week, the Russian parliament passed a law requiring all Internet firms to store users' personal data on servers located in Russia. This would force foreign tech companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to move servers into Russia, where they will be required to surrender data about their users, or have Russian access to their websites blocked. The companies have long declined to provide some user information to the Russian government. (Twitter publishes many of the takedown notices it receives from foreign governments and other organizations at fellow Berkman project Chilling Effects.) The law is awaiting approval by the parliament's upper chamber and President Vladimir Putin.

This comes days after President Putin approved new amendments to an existing law, expanding the definition of "extremism" and giving the Russian government new powers to prosecute it. The amendments – which the Kremlin has said are meant to curb terrorism – give the government broad latitude to pursue those who are accused of inciting extremism online. The amendments pay special attention to social media: an unofficial Kremlin account stated that liking or retweeting an offending post might also be considered extremism – which carries a sentence of up to five years under the law. The existing law has been used as justification to block news sites as well as target anti-government writers and Western television shows.

The amended law bears some resemblance to a recently revealed British policy, in effect if not so much in form. The director general of the United Kingdom's Office for Security and Counter Terrorism explained last month that the British government treats many of its citizens' domestic online messages as "external communications," on the basis that their data leaves the UK's borders. That means that Facebook messages traded between British citizens – who are usually guaranteed significant protection from surveillance under British law – in Great Britain would be subject to government scrutiny, because the data contained in their messages might flit to servers in the United States or Sweden before heading back to the UK. Russia, it seems, decided to cut out the middle man and make sure the data never leaves the country in the first place.

This month's legislation is only the latest in Russia's campaign to gain control over its the Internet, long a harbor of free expression in a country where much of the traditional media is controlled, officially or not, by the state. Other recently introduced legislation would require bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors – or social media users with the same number of followers – to register as media with the government, a status that entails a slew of requirements, including verifying the accuracy of published information and responsibility for the content of comments. Penalties for violations range from fines of up to 500,000 rubles (nearly $15,000) to jail time.

The Committee to Protect Journalists noted last week that "[t]he new legislation is alarming because with mainstream media, including national television and popular newspapers, under state control, the Internet has been Russians' main source of independent coverage and commentary."