Russia: World Cup 2018 exposes digital rights abuses

Russia: World Cup 2018 exposes digital rights abuses - Digital

Photo: Telegram, Shutterstock.

Digital rights in Russia

Russia has some of the most oppressive digital laws in the world, undermining both privacy and free speech. They are used by the Russian authorities to silence journalists, disrupt political dissent and target activists.

The imprisonment of journalists such as Zhalaudi Geriev, who has reported on human rights violations in Chechnya, and human rights defenders such as Oyub Titiev, show what’s at stake for those who criticise the Russian state. The arbitrary blocking of websites, laws that prevent anonymous browsing and the blocking of secure messaging apps contribute to an environment that chills free speech.

Executive Director of Article 19, Thomas Hughes said:

“Russia should not be allowed to ‘sportswash’ its appalling human rights record during the World Cup. It’s time for the international community, both governments and companies, to call on Russia to protect its citizens’ right to free speech.”

Here are some of the ways that the Russian Government is trying to crack down on digital rights:

Websites are blocked by the Government

The Russian authorities maintain a blacklist of blocked websites. They can request that a website is blocked by Internet Service Providers without involving the Courts. These powers have been used to censor independent media organisations and silence political opposition. ARTICLE 19 is calling on Russia to stop the arbitrary blocking of websites; blocking should only be authorised by independent courts in line with international standards on what is proportionate and necessary.

As of June 2018, approximately 4.7 million IP addresses are currently illegally blocked, according to local Internet freedom organisations Roskomsvoboda (Source: As IP addresses are used to block access, this has led to the collateral blocking of many websites that share the same IP address.

Media sites that are found to have violated Russian media law are given 24 hours to remove content or face fines and potentially having access to their websites blocked. Media sites such as and and the opposition site have been permanently blocked. Therefore media sites are encouraged to self censor or remove content to avoid potential violations.

The Government is trying to block Telegram

The Russian Government is trying to block the messaging app Telegram after it refused to hand over keys that would decrypt encrypted messages. Telegram have argued that it is not technically possible for them to do this. In April, the Government requested a court order to block Telegram – a decision that was met by mass protests. The order was issued and led to many other sites being blocked even though they didn’t contain illegal content.

You can’t be anonymous

Since January 2018, messaging apps must identify users by their mobile phone numbers. It is necessary to produce a passport when buying a mobile sim card. This threatens the ability of Russians to communicate anonymously and is of particular concern to people for whom this is a lifeline – whether journalists, LGBTQi  people, political activists or domestic abuse survivors. Anyone visiting Russia during the World Cup will not be able to access Wifi anonymously, they will have to register with either a phone number or email address.

Personal data is available to the authorities

Russia’s local data localisation law requires the personal data of Russian citizens to be stored on database servers in Russia.  If data was held by companies outside of Russia, they could refuse to hand it over but if it’s held in Russia, the security services can access it. The definition of personal data is unclear and could also include the data of foreign citizens who communicate with Russians. There are a lack of safeguards, which means that these powers could be potentially abused to disrupt political opposition. When LinkedIn refused to do store data locally, the site was blocked. However, Google, Facebook and Twitter still do not comply with this law.


Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) aren’t banned but they are not allowed to give their users access to websites that have been banned by the authorities, including political websites. Websites that provide information about how to use VPNs have also been blocked.

Storing data about users’ internet activity

From July 2018, the Russian government is forcing all Internet and apps providers to store data about their users’ Internet activity. This information is stored for at least six months and can be accessed by the authorities without a court order. This law has huge implications for political activists and campaigners, who can be identified and tracked by the authorities.

Prosecutions for sharing and liking social media posts

In 2017, Evdokiya Romanova, LGBTQI activist was fined 50,000 roubles ($870) for ‘gay propaganda’ for re-posting BuzzFeed and The Guardian posts on Facebook about LGBT. The trial was held behind closed doors “to prevent propaganda of LGBT relations”.

Contact: For interviews or further information about free speech or digital rights in Russia, please contact [email protected] or 07749 785 932.

Read World Cup press release on Russia’s crackdown against LGBTQI communities and activists.