Russia Declares War On Bloggers With Sweeping New Censorship Law

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool

Russian president Vladimir Putin, left, speaks at a Cabinet meeting

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin approved a new Internet law Tuesday, further tightening the government’s stranglehold on free and open Web access. The so-called “bloggers law,” borrows from China’s censorship law and requires all Web-based writers with at least 3,000 daily page hits to register with the government. China’s benchmark is slightly more lenient, with a 5,000 page view limit or 500 shares for negative posts.

Russian bloggers, and even people with popular social media accounts, must now follow the same rules as mainstream news outlets: fact-checking and removing inaccurate information that’s posted. Bloggers also aren’t allowed to defame another person or group in their posts, and can’t obfuscate or hide facts to further an agenda. By grouping in everyday citizens who typically make up the blogosphere with journalists, the law gives the Russian government even more opportunity to curate what’s said on the Internet — and ostensibly determine what’s factual or defamatory. The move also puts even greater pressure on the already strained Russian media, which is already under strict government guidelines.

Over the past couple of years, Russia has increased its Internet censorship efforts, including passing online filtering protocols that let the government monitor all Web traffic. In a recent interview with former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Putin hedged questions about whether Russia spies on its citizens online or otherwise.

Russia remains in the lowest tier (148 of 179) when it comes to media freedom, according to the Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders wrote that the country may have dropped in the ranking if it weren’t for citizens’ strong resistance. The Russian government has banned over 2,000 websites, supposedly targeting illegal drugs, spam and pornography. In the past, bloggers who oppose the Russian government have had their websites blocked. Also, during this year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there were multiple deaths, dozens of attacks and police arrests as a result of a government crackdown on reporters who focused on corruption or were critical of the government.

But Russia’s blogger law goes further in attempting to curtail free speech online in the country. Starting in the fall, the Russian government will use software to scan the Internet for undisclosed curse words, putting greater scrutiny and restrictions on the country’s bloggers. Curse words in the media were banned in 2013 but Putin’s new law censors profanity — mainly pejoratives referring to genitalia or “women with loose morals” — in books, poetry, films and music among other things. This mandate may target conversation surrounding punk protest group Pussy Riot, whose imprisonment incited worldwide outcry. The law, effective Aug. 1, also requires Internet companies such as Google store servers housing Russian users data inside the country.

While it’s unclear how far the law would extend or how it would affect international outlets, Russia’s move will likely affect thousands of ordinary Russians and could spark a backlash akin to the protests that toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine’s draconian censorship law, which required websites to register with the state and criminalized defamation and “distribution of extremist materials,” did little but further fuel the protests raging in Kyiv.

Having cowed the traditional press, government leaders all over the world have increasingly turned to Internet censorship to quell dissent. At least 20 countries increased Internet restrictions over the course of one year, according to a 2012 study published by Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shut down Twitter and YouTube amid pressure from corruption scandals in March. China also tightened its censorship efforts by criminalizing derogatory remarks on blogs and online forums last year.

Tech companies, however, are fighting such efforts. For example, during Turkey’s ban, Twitter posted directions on how users could still access the site through text messages or proxy servers. Google also recently took on China’s Great Firewall by announcing plans to encrypt all Web searches, which would make it harder for the government to see what sites people visit.