Over the course of 2015, Russian legislation related to the regulation of online content and activity continued to tighten, sharpening the challenge for freedom of expression and right to information.
ARTICLE 19’s latest report “Russia: Changes in the sphere of media and Internet regulation 2015-6” analyses a number of these legislative developments, particularly focusing on the risks and penalties faced by online media – often the first to be affected. The report was launched this week at the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain, where ARTICLE 19 led a session on the regulation of online content in Russia.
The report outlines the type of online content that may be considered problematic by the Russian authorities, the steps taken by the Russian regulatory body, Roskomnadzor, to remove the content and the penalties for non-compliance.
While broad restrictions on online content are not new in Russia – extra-judicial blocking of content considered to be extremist or inciting unsanctioned protests has existed since 2013, while 2014 saw increased attempts to control social media and the introduction of regulation around bloggers – the continuation of this trend gives cause for serious concern.
The recent changes include amendments expanding existing legislation notably to create fiercer penalties for violating the law or failing to comply with requests by Roskomnadzor to remove information published online.
Extra-judicial regulation of ‘unacceptable content’
Roskomnadzor may request content to be taken down, or an entire website site blocked, if it deems an online article or post to be extremist in nature, offensive to religious believers or to call into question the integrity of Russian territory.
The legislation utilised to restrict freedom of expression online, such as that on extremism or offence to religious believers, is frequently vague and ambiguously formulated. This allows for broad interpretation and it is not necessarily clear from the legislation what type of material may be considered illegal.
Furthermore, notices from Roskomnadzor to remove content do not need to specify what content was problematic or why. Failure to respond to a warning to take down the content within 24 hours, however, can lead to the website in question being completely blocked and the imposition of serious administrative penalties with the potential to cause significant financial issues for media outlets. If more than two warnings are issued to a mass media outlet within a year, the regulator has the right to request its closure.
A key issue is also the enforcement of this legislation and the consideration of whether or not online materials fall foul of the legislation. Roskomnadzor has increasingly had its powers extended over the past few years to control online content. As a result, it has the authority to independently make decisions as to whether or not there has been a violation, without judicial oversight.
The Internet has long been recognised around the world as an important tool to facilitate the free exchange of views and ideas. Under international law, online content may legitimately be subject to some narrow restrictions, for example to prevent the dissemination of child pornography; however, any content regulation must not undermine freedom of expression, and must be necessary and proportionate to their aim. Otherwise, it may have a ‘chilling effect’ on independent voices and the media, which adversely restricts the free flow of information and the public’s right to know.
In the Russian context, the Internet plays an especially key role considering the government control over the mass media channels and independent media is limited.
New year, new laws, new restrictions
On 1 January, two new laws of concern came into force. The first on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals the right to demand search engine companies to ‘de-list’ links to information about them that are in violation of Russian law, inaccurate, out of date, or irrelevant because of subsequent events or actions taken by the citizens. This law came into force very recently, and how it will be applied remains to be seen. However, due to the lack of crucial safeguards for the protection of the right to freedom of expression, such as providing limitations on “right to be forgotten” when the personal information at issue is in the public interest and/or concerns public figures, there is a real risk for the law to impact upon citizens’ right to information. This in turn further undermines the necessary balance between the right to freedom of information and the right to privacy, whereas the former tends to be ignored for the sake of the latter.
The second new law to come into force strengthens state control over activities of the media, both on-and-offline, by requiring mass media outlets, as well as broadcasters or publishers to report if they are receiving foreign funding. This will likely place greater pressure on independent media outlets, since, as with other legislation outlined above, a failure to comply will incur significant fines.