Russia: The Law on Activities of Foreign Internet Companies threatens freedom of expression

Russia: The Law on Activities of Foreign Internet Companies  threatens freedom of expression - Digital

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that a new Russian law concerning activities of foreign Internet companies, adopted on 17 June 2021, will further threaten freedom of expression online and increase censorship in Russia. We call on Russian President Vladmir Putin to reject the Law. We also call on the Russian government to repeal three laws, adopted at the end of December 2020, that expand existing overbroad legislation on blocking online content. 

The Law No. 1176731-7 On the activities of foreign entities on the “Internet” telecommunications network in the territory of the Russian Federation (the Law) was introduced in late May by a group of MPs and senators, quickly proceeded in all relevant committees and was quickly adopted in all readings. It is currently pending the signature by the President. There has been no consultation with either Internet companies or civil society over the proposals. 

The Law concerns any foreign entity/individual that has a web-site and/or a web-page with over 500,000 daily users from the Russian Federation, as well as foreign hosting providers. The Law obliges them to place an electronic form on their websites for receiving appeals from Russian citizens and organisations, register a personal account on the official website of Roskomnadzor and, most importantly, establish a branch or open a representative office in Russia or set up a Russian legal entity and ensure their operation on Russian territory (this provision will come into force on 1 January 2022). 

Under the Law, the entities that do not comply with the new requirements will face sanctions, including a full or partial limitation of access as well as withdrawal of links to those resources from the online search results in Russia. 

The Law also obliges the Internet companies to comply with the content requirements established inter alia by the laws adopted in December 2020. As ARTICLE 19 already stated, according to those laws, social networks are obliged to proactively monitor their content in order to limit access to certain types of information. This includes an incredibly broad range of content, such as “information insulting to the Russian society, State, constitution, state symbols and state authorities,” “calls for participation in public disorders or extremist activities,” “disinformation of public importance,” or materials of foreign or international organisations that are recognised as “unwanted organisations” by the Anti-Magnitsky Law. These provisions go far beyond permissible limitations on freedom of expression under international freedom of expression standards.

ARTICLE 19 finds the new Law to be particularly dangerous given that the foreign Internet companies cannot rely on the Russian courts to challenge blocking decisions or requests for content removal. The Government claims this Law is needed to protect Russian users of foreign Internet companies. However, we believe that In reality, it will be used to censor critical voices active on foreign online platforms and put individuals who speak out against the Government at greater risk of sanctions.

ARTICLE 19 calls on Russian President Vladmir Putin to reject the Law.  Not only should the Law be repealed but the Russian government should also repeal the laws adopted in December 2020 as they do not comply with international freedom of expression standards. The government must also refrain from introducing disproportionate restrictions on online expression and overbroad regulation of internet intermediaries.

We also urge the affected Internet companies to resist the key requirement of the new law concerning establishing a representative office or a legal person in the Russian Federation since the implementation of this obligation will make them vulnerable to the potentially unlawful content moderation requests coming from the Russian government. 

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