Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently emboldened by his recent rise in popularity in the aftermath of the Sochi Olympics and the Crimean annexation, has now put internet censorship in his sights. He has signed into law a measure that would give the Russian government greater ability to spy on users speaking online. Paranoid as ever, his actions come just weeks after he proclaimed the internet as a “special CIA project”.
Broadly known as the “blogger’s law”, the new Russian decree postulates that any site with more than 3,000 visitors daily will be considered a media outlet much like a newspaper, and it will thus be responsible for the correctness of the information within. Opponents and supporters of the legislation agree that it is vague. For example, the law does not specify how the government will count the 3,000 daily visitors. But two of the largest blogging platforms, Yandex and LiveJournal announced that, from now on, publicly visible counters would stop below 3,000
Putin spoke in April in St. Petersburg. While there he expressed suspicions about the internet. He did this while, at the same time, acknowledging it had become a hugely popular public forum. “You know that it all began initially, when the Internet first appeared, as a C.I. A. project”, adding that “special services are still at the center of things.” Curiously, in his nationally broadcast remarks, he referred to Edward Snowden, now famously ensconced in asylum in Russia. He thanked the former N.S.A. analyst for revealing to the world how efficient that agency was at gathering data. One might wonder what Snowden’s reaction would be to his host’s censorship actions. In this scenario in Russia, a whistle-blower like Snowden would be imperiled. Snitches who work for corrupt government agencies would theoretically no longer be able to post anonymously. To be sure, there is a lack of transparency in Russia and a fog around numerous issues. It appears that by censorship Putin wants to stay ahead of the curve of popular opinion. Keeping the electorate in the dark is one way of preserving popularity.
Aside from the act of registration, according to the law bloggers can no longer remain anonymous online. The measure goes further and includes search engines, social networks and other forums. Under the new dictate they will have to maintain computer records in Russia of all postings within six months. “This law will cut the number of critical voices and opposition voices on the internet”, said Galina Arapova, an expert on Russian media law. “The whole package seems quite restrictive and might affect harshly those who disseminate critical information about the state, about authorities, about public figures”, she stated. Others have despaired that it is part of a wide effort to shut down the internet in Russia.
Russia is among a host of countries that have sought to silence Internet voices attempting to circumvent their country’s state controlled media. They far it is being, or will be used, as a tool for organizing disruptive demonstrations and fomenting rebellion. Foremost on the list is China where even its social media darling, Weibo (valued at $3.6 billion in this year’s IPO), finds itself under increased government scrutiny over its expression posture. Turkey recently imposed bans on Twitter and YouTube over tapes alleging corruption by the Prime Minister, Recep Tayip Erdogan. After a favourable ruling by the Constitutional Court, Twitter was restored last month. The ban on YouTube remains. There were also reports in February from Venezuela of the government there blocking online images from users. And in recent years, Pakistan has banned 20,000 to 40,000 websites, including YouTube, citing content offensive to Muslims. Jonathan Zittrain, A Harvard Law School Internet law professor commented that “we also see the amount of resources going into censorship increasing greatly.”
The new law in Russia is not due to go into effect until August 1. Until then one can only speculate on the impact of the measure. If the law is strictly enforced, the penalties can be severe. They include the closing of the blog and fines that can reach as high as $142,000.This recent act of censorship comes on the heels of a law which went into effect on Feb. 1 and gave the Russian government the power to block websites. It put the law to work immediately in silencing very vocal critics such as Garry Kasparov. It was also employed to darken online news sites that reported demonstrations and other political activity. Apparently Putin is circling the wagons against threats to his popularity. This might be wise from his perspective because public opinion seems to be on the side of Internet freedom. Polls conducted in 24 countries last spring by Pew Research found that most people are opposed to government censorship of the Internet, including 63 percent of Russians. One can only wonder if the Russian public will ever know of this plurality as it may just be another casualty of Russian censorship.