Russia: 50+ NGOs urge UN to challenge restrictions to online expression and digital privacy

Today, 27 June 2018, ARTICLE 19, on behalf of 51 other organisations, delivered an oral statement to the 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, highlighting concerns regarding the actions taken by the Russian Federation to restrict online freedom and digital privacy, which have serious implications for Internet users globally.

Over the past six years, through the steady adoption of a raft of regressive legislation contravening international standards on freedom of expression as well as placing unjustified pressure on Internet intermediaries, Russia has creating a framework, which, if fully implemented, would not only severely limit the free flow of information online but potentially give them access to the personal communication data of anyone, anywhere. In July 2018, new aspects of the already highly problematic 2016 ‘Yarovaya Law’ will come into force requiring all communications providers and Internet operators to store the content of all communications for six months and to make them accessible to the security services without a court order. If implemented, it would be impossible to differentiate between the communications of people living in Russia or elsewhere.

Ahead of the statement, delivered as part of UNHRC’s Item 4 – General Debate, Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19, said, “The large number of international and Russian organisations that have come together with ARTICLE 19 to raise the alarm on this issue demonstrates its critical importance. We are calling on the United Nations to scrutinise and publicly challenge Russia’s actions in order to uphold the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy both online and-offline, as stipulated in binding international agreements to which Russia is a party.

Last month, ARTICLE 19 together with 56 international and Russian human rights, media and Internet freedom organisations condemned the mass Internet disruption caused by the Russian Federation’s attempts to block the Internet messaging service Telegram, which resulted in extensive violations of freedom of expression including access to information. Almost 20 million Internet Protocol (IP) addresses were ordered to be blocked causing an unprecedented level collateral website blocking. The basis of the authorities’ action was Telegram’s noncompliance with already implemented previsions of 2016 so-called ‘Yarovaya Law’. Justified on the grounds of “countering extremism”, this law requires all communications providers and Internet operators to store metadata about their users’ communications activities, to disclose decryption keys at the security services’ request, and to use only encryption methods approved by the Russian government – in practical terms, to create a backdoor for Russia’s security agents to access internet users’ data, traffic, and communications.

Much attention, rightly so, has been paid to the attempts by the Russian authorities to block Telegram and the fallout this has caused for the Russian Internet, including widespread collateral website blocking. However this is just the tip of the iceberg,”added Morris. “Behind this action is a clear, systematic and on-going attempt by the Russian Government to restrict the free flow of information online and monitor Internet users, invading their right to privacy and creating a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression. This is highly alarming given the existing restrictive environment for independent media in Russia and the role the Internet plays in facilitating open debate and exchange of critical ideas, ” added Ms Morris.

Also ahead of today’s statement Damir Gainutdinov, lawyer with, Agora International, which is representing Telegram in Russia and has endorsed today’s statement added: “I have no doubt that the right to privacy, including the confidentiality of personal correspondence, can, under certain conditions, be limited in order to protect national security, i.e to prevent and investigate crimes. The task of national authorities is to strike a balance between these two legitimate aims. By forcing Internet companies to weaken encryption and give the security services unrestricted access to communications, the Russian authorities instead threaten the rights of all users and in fact undermine the system of national and international security. Nothing in the world is worth such extraordinary measures and the damage it causes will be incomparably greater than the illusory benefits gained by the police in the fight against crime.”

Read the statement in full here.