In its ongoing campaign to stifle political dissent on the internet, the Kremlin last year passed two important laws. The first, popularly known as the ‘law on bloggers’, requires any website with over 3,000 readers to publish under a real name, and to register with the authorities if requested. Those found guilty of failing to do so face an initial fine of 300,000 roubles (approx. $6,000 USD), and if warned a second time can be fined up to 500,000 roubles (approx. $10,000 USD) or face a 30 day suspension.
The second law allows Russian prosecutors to block without a court order any website that displays information relating to political protests.
It seems that Google, Twitter and Facebook have now fallen foul of both these laws, leading the Roskomnadzor (the federal body responsible for overseeing internet communications) to write a stern letter to US owned and operated tech giants . According to Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky,
‘In our letters we regularly remind [companies] of the consequences of violating the legislation.’
Roskomnadzor’s deputy director, Maksim Ksenzov, said that the tech firms had not complied with requests for the number of daily visitors to certain users’ web pages, and or for requests to provide the identity of the web page owners.
Kzenzov warned that if the companies did not comply with the requests for ‘information containing calls to participate in mass rioting, extremist activities,’ the Roskomnadzor would ‘limit access to the information resource where that information is posted.’
President Putin last year made clear his suspicion of ‘the internet’ as a ‘CIA project’, and the tech firm’s own transparency reports lend some credence to his claim. According to Google’s latest semi-annual report, it complied with 78 percent of user data requests made by the US government, but only 5 percent of those made by the Russian government.
‘We realise they are registered under US jurisdiction. But I think in this case they should demonstrate equal respect to national legislation.’
Facebook countered by saying that it complies with all government data requests about its users ‘that comply with company policies and local laws, and meet international standards of legal process.’
How far Russia will push the issue remains to be seen, but with diplomatic relations between the US and Russia rapidly deteriorating towards cold war levels of mistrust, the internet (and the US owned companies who largely control it) is likely to become an increasingly sharp bone of contention.
We therefore urge political dissenters in Russia (and their readers) to strongly consider protecting their online actively by using VPN or Tor, and to not provide their real-life details to social media organizations. We do, of course, also applaud the bravery of those wish to speak out and refuse to hide their identity, and wish all such the very best luck.