ARTICLE 19 calls on international Internet companies to challenge Russian authorities’ attempts to censor online content hosted on platforms widely used by Russian citizens. The so-called ‘landing law’, which fully entered into force in early January 2022, requires major Internet companies to register legal entities or establish local offices in Russia and could be used to suppress freedom of expression and access to information by making Internet companies vulnerable to online content removal requests or demands to disclose users’ personal data from the authorities.
On 11 November 2021, the Russian Federal Service for Communications Supervision (Roskomnadzor) published a list of tech companies that are required to officially register as legal entities and/or open representative offices in Russia. The list is aimed at facilitating the implementation of federal law No. 1176731-7 ‘On the activities of foreign entities on the “Internet” telecommunications network in the territory of the Russian Federation’, adopted on 17 June 2021 and popularly referred to as the ‘landing law’. ARTICLE 19 commented on this law in a statement published on 21 June 2021 and expressed deep concerns that it could further threaten freedom of expression online and increase censorship in Russia.
The registry includes 13 of the world’s largest internet companies, including Apple, Google, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Twitter. Companies with a daily audience in Russia of at least half a million people will also be forced to create user accounts on the Roskomnadzor website and introduce an online application form to enable inquiries from Russian citizens and organisations. Additionally, they are requested to install software displaying the number of visitors of their platforms.
Importantly, a number of the Internet companies on the ‘landing list’ are also qualified as social networks according to another law adopted at the end of December 2020. As ARTICLE 19 previously commented, those Internet companies are obliged to proactively monitor and limit access to an overly broad range of content that ‘violates Russian law,’ including vague categories such as false information or extremist materials. ARTICLE 19 strongly opposes the imposition of general content monitoring obligations on Internet intermediaries, as it de facto turns private entities into online censors. The Russian authorities have already started imposing huge financial penalties for non-compliance with content moderation requests. On Friday, 24 December 2021, a Moscow court ordered Google to pay 7.2 billion rubles ($98 million), Meta received a 1.9 billion-ruble ($27 million) court fine. On Thursday, 23 December, Twitter was also issued a fine of 3 million rubles ($40,000) for refusing to remove ‘illegal content’. These are just the most recent penalties.
Non-compliance with the provisions of the ‘landing law’ will be penalised with economic and technical measures. Economic sanctions include a ban on advertising of non-complying Internet companies, and their removal from online search results in the Russian Federation, preventing these companies from collecting and cross-border transferring personal data, restricting payments and money transfers to those companies. Technical sanctions include partial or complete blocking of access to a non-complying online resource.
The ulterior motive behind the adoption of the ‘landing law’ is to create legal grounds for extensive online censorship by silencing remaining opposition voices and threatening freedom of expression online. The ‘landing law’ could be used to exert unlawful pressure on local representatives of international social networks or other online resources so that they restrict access to or remove content regarded as ‘undesirable’ by the incumbent government. This violates both the Russian Constitution and international human rights law that protects freedom of expression and access to information both offline and online.
There is an established tendency of applying the country’s restrictive legislation to silence opposition voices and suppress dissent in Russia. As the BBC reported in December 2021, most court proceedings against foreign Internet companies over their refusals to remove online content referred to calls to attend the pro-Navalny demonstrations (379 out of 400 posts in 2021). On 25 December, Roskomnadzor blocked the OVD-Info website and sent notifications demanding the blocking of the project’s accounts on social media. The demand to block online content is officially motivated by the alleged justification of extremist and terrorist activities. In the statement issued soon after the ban, the OVD-Info team called it ‘an open act of censorship that will affect the entire Russian society’ as ‘millions of Russians use the information provided by OVD-Info, and every day we help them defend their basic civil rights guaranteed by the Russian Constitution’. The organisation launched an online petition, calling on Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, VKontakte, Yandex and Google ‘not to block accounts’ of non-governmental organisations.
“ARTICLE 19 understands that Russian authorities have continuously used content removal requests to clamp down on the independent media and silence dissenting voices online. We are concerned that the implementation of the ‘landing law’ will make international social networks even more vulnerable to unlawful content removal requests and demands to disclose personal data coming from the authorities,” said Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia for ARTICLE 19
The first disturbing signal came in mid-January 2022, when Apple began to comply with the requirement to create a personal account on the Roskomnadzor website. Although the company refrained from opening a representative office or setting up an online application form, there is fear that it may choose to do so to avoid further legal and financial repercussions. At the same time, compliance with the above-listed demands from Roskomnadzor can make it easier for the state censor to force Internet companies that operate in Russia to remove ‘undesirable’ content from their platforms.
ARTICLE 19 calls on Russian authorities to cease all censorship practices targeting online expression and repeal controversial national legislation regulating activities of foreign and national Internet companies, including major social networks. ARTICLE 19 also urges international Internet companies to carefully assess possible negative consequences of implementation of the ‘landing law’ and to challenge unjustified requests for content removal and demands to disclose personal data originating from Russian authorities.