On 26 March, Russia experienced the largest popular protests in over five years – sparked by an online viral video investigating alleged corruption by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. A report launched by ARTICLE 19 today presents how the Russian government seeks to restrict freedom of expression online, exploring how online dissent interacts with broader protest movements and government criticism.
Today, ARTICLE 19 launched its latest report “Digital Rights in Russia: An analysis of the deterioration of Freedom of Expression Online”, which presents how the Russian authorities seek to control what is said and published on the Internet through restrictive legislation, surveillance and criminal prosecutions. The report was first presented to participants of RightsCon, an annual conference now underway in Brussels, which brings together representatives of the digital rights community including activists, companies and technology experts.
“Activists in Russia will not be silenced, despite the authorities’ increasingly sophisticated tools and methods for stifling online dissent, documented in this report”, said Sarkis Darbinyan, co-founder of Roskomsvoboda, a Russian Internet freedom and human rights NGO. “As the recent protests in Russia demonstrate, criticism online can go viral and has the potential to manifest itself into real opposition to corruption and anti-democratic practices”, he added.
The launch coincides with protests involving tens of thousands of people, which took place on 26 March in more than 90 cities across Russia. The protesters were calling for an inquiry into alleged corruption by the Prime Minister Medvedev, exposed in an online video released by opposition leader Alexei Navalny in early March. In response, the Russian authorities detained over 1000 protesters, including a number of journalists. Some protest leaders have received jail sentences ranging from one week to 25 days on administrative charges. Among those arrested is Leonid Volkov, Russian digital rights activist, who contributed substantively to ARTICLE 19’s report, released today.
Worryingly, the downward trend in freedom of expression online documented in the report was precipitated by public demonstrations in 2011-12, which confirmed authorities’ fears that the Internet posed a threat to government power, precipitating significant changes to the legal and regulatory framework governing the Internet in Russia, aimed at preventing it from providing a platform for dissent. Recent country-wide demonstrations, held on 26 March 2017, saw over a thousand people detained and could be used as a pretext for a new wave of restrictions.
This report illustrates the current situation of digital rights through five case studies that detail specific legislative changes or other methods used to restrict freedom of expression online:
- The first case study looks at the blocking of websites calling for an electoral boycott in September 2016. It explores how a series of amendments to Federal Law 149-FZ on Information, IT Technologies and Protection of Information have enabled the blocking of online content without a court decision. Millions of other websites have been blocked without judicial oversight, many for their expression of critical views directed towards the government.
- The second case study considers the abuse of anti-extremism legislation to curb political dissent online, examining the high-profile case of Anton Nossik, an Internet expert and opposition activist, who was ordered to pay a substantial fine having been found guilty of incitement to hatred for an online post. Penalties for violating Article 282 (Incitement to Hatred) and Article 280.1 (Public calls for separatism) have increased, and are more frequently applied against those criticising government policy.
- The third case study presents how Russia’s biggest social network, VKontakte, openly works with the security services to limit dissent. Vkontake provides personal information to authorities regardless of the legitimacy of the requests and without transparency of the process. This facilitates the application of arbitrary criminal charges, encouraging self-censorship on social media.
- The fourth case study explores allegations that Kremlin-paid trolls are exploiting Facebook community rules in order to silence voices critical of the Russian government. Journalists and activists who have expressed views critical of the government have had accounts suspended after being unfairly accused of violating community standards.
- Finally, the fifth case study looks at the blocking of LinkedIn in Russia, for failing to comply with Federal Law 242-FZ, the so-called ‘Personal Data Localisation’ Law. This requires any web service processing Russian citizens personal data to store this information on database servers located within the territory of the Russian Federation, providing Russian authorities with easier access to Internet users’ personal data.
The report aims to increase awareness and understanding both within Russia and internationally of the deteriorating situation. We also offer recommendations targeted at Russian Internet users, international digital companies active in the country, the Russian government, and the international community at large for how to react to increasing restrictions, and how the situation could be improved.