In Russia, the internet has been a freewheeling space for information flow and open debate since its inception.
But the cacophony of conflicting social media voices and the power of internet platforms to facilitate political organization – as well as enable extremists to communicate and multiply their messages – has prompted strong impulses among officials to censor what they see as “fake news,” to crack down in the name of truth.
Now a package of new laws, signed this week by Vladimir Putin, is stirring an outcry in Russia over allowing anyone in authority to decide what constitutes fake news and to determine what to do about it.
Russian civil society activists, the Kremlin’s own Presidential Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, and even a rare street demonstration this month by thousands of internet freedom advocates have all expressed deep alarm at the prospect of bureaucrats being handed the power to summarily shut down any online content that rubs them the wrong way.
Ignoring a request from the Kremlin’s rights council to withdraw the original draft laws and subject them to major revisions, the Russian State Duma went ahead with its blanket fake news law, which imposes huge fines for publishing any “untrue” report that creates a threat to life, health, public order, security, infrastructure, and almost any public institution.
For good measure, the Duma passed a second law enabling officials to shut down any content containing “information expressed in an indecent form which insults human dignity and public morality and shows obvious disrespect for society, the state, and official symbols of Russia, the Russian Constitution, or other agencies that administer government power in Russia.”
Russian analysts say the laws passed by the Duma are only the latest in a long line of attempts to regulate online speech in Russia, most of which have failed to produce much impact in the past. If nothing else, some say, the new laws clarify the battle lines over free speech in ways that might prove productive in the long run.
LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE
“These laws basically give officials a free hand” to determine what is publishable and what is not, says Dmitry Fomintsev, editor of Tochka News, a news portal in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.
“The day after Duma deputies passed the bill on fake news, we decided to do an experiment,” says Mr. Fomintsev. “We sent an official request to the Duma speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, asking whether the phrase ‘Christ has risen’ could be regarded as fake news or not? His office responded, saying that’s not a question for the Duma to decide. But, in fact, under this new law, it really is.
“They will try to apply it, as they do everything, in a selective manner to put pressure on the media,” he says.
Before the Duma’s vote and Mr. Putin’s signature, the human rights council sought on its website this month to frame an answer to the dilemma of how to deal with fake news that might serve well in almost any place where people are wrestling with the challenge: Let people decide for themselves.
“[The law’s] provisions for punishing the dissemination of false information … appear to be redundant,” it said. “They also provide a basis for the arbitrary prosecution of citizens and organizations. Practice shows that the best way to counter the spread of false information (the so-called ‘fake news’) on socially important topics is for the authorities to promptly provide the public with the most complete information, as well as permitting a range of independent expert opinions….
“The Council believes that Russian civil society currently demonstrates a sufficiently high level of information competence and the ability to understand the arguments in an open and free discussion. Making management decisions without proper public discussion will only increase social instability in society,” it said.
The new Russian laws supplement previous ones that allowed the government communications watchdog Roskomnadzor to blacklist obscene or extremist websites, as well as legislation that tried to force big internet companies to keep their Russian data on Russia-based servers in the name of “digital sovereignty.” That led to the banning of LinkedIn in Russia, after it refused to comply with the new rules, but the Russian government has so far declined to go after other big companies like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, presumably out of fear of a public backlash.
“There is nothing new happening with these laws,” says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a press freedom watchdog. “Our state has already assembled a wide array of instruments with which to censor, with the goal of protecting power. But, like most Russian laws, they are not really meant to be used. They are warning signs. They draw the lines which people should not cross. It’s not clear how these new laws will change the situation.”
Russian attempts to control the domestic internet date from 2011, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest alleged election fraud. Russian security services noted the widespread use of social media to organize and coordinate the rallies.
“The Kremlin is not so interested in curbing peoples’ access to information. The main concern is the internet’s role in political organization,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a journal of Russian political opinion published by George Washington University.
“There is no apparent urge among masses of Russians to take to the streets right now, though opinion polls show presidential approval ratings down and economic discontent rising,” she says. “But the Kremlin is interested in sending a strong message to anyone who might be thinking of organizing protests: Be careful what you say or post on the web.”
ISOLATE THE INTERNET
Perhaps more alarmingly, the Kremlin is taking another set of measures that would enable authorities to cut the Russian internet off from the rest of the world or isolate the internet of particular Russian regions in the event of an emergency. This is being presented as a defensive measure to protect Russia in the event of cyberattack from outside, but it would also make it possible to prevent unrest from spreading from any locality where it might break out.
“The new law will require special equipment to be installed in internet exchange points, so that traffic could be redirected and regional internets shut down,” says Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web, a history of the Russian internet. “There is a series of drills underway. It’s basically a work in progress.”
Russian analysts say the most worrisome aspect of the new measures is that the determination of what is permissible online is being increasingly taken from the courts and placed into the hands of officials.
“If the procedure for deciding what is fake news becomes more bureaucratic, that makes it faster and more efficient from the government’s point of view,” says Ms. Lipman. “The new law specifies that objectionable content should be blocked ‘immediately.’ That suggests that some official will decide that people should not see something, and it will be blocked at once. That’s the way things are going.”
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