President Vladimir Putin has tightened his grip on the Russian Internet by signing two censorship bills into law. One bans fake news while the other makes it illegal to insult public officials.
Russia has never really been a liberal democracy. It lacks an independent judiciary, and the government has found a variety of techniques to harass and intimidate independent media in the country.
But the new legislation gives the Russian government more direct tools to censor online speech. Under one bill, individuals can face fines and jail time if they publish material online that shows a clear disrespect for society, the state, the
official state symbols of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and bodies exercising state power. Punishments can be as high as 300,000 rubles ($4,700) and 15 days in jail.
A second bill subjects sites publishing unreliable socially significant information to fines as high as 1.5 million rubles ($23,000).
Thousands of people in Moscow and other Russian cities took to the streets over the weekend to protest legislation they fear could lead to widespread internet censorship in the country.
The protests, which were some of the biggest protests in the Russian capital in years, came in response to a bill in parliament that would route all internet traffic through servers in Russia, making virtual private networks (VPNs) ineffective.
Critics note that the bill creates an internet firewall similar to China's.
People gathered in a cordoned off Prospekt Sakharova street in Moscow, made speeches on a stage and chanted slogans such as hands off the internet and no to isolation, stop breaking the Russian internet. The rally gathered around 15,300 people,
according to White Counter, an NGO that counts participants at rallies. Moscow police put the numbers at 6,500.
Russia's parliament has advanced repressive new internet laws allowing the authorities to jail or fine those who spread supposed 'fake news' or disrespect government officials online.
Under the proposed laws, which still await final passage and presidential signature, people found guilty of spreading indecent posts that demonstrate disrespect for society, the state, (and) state symbols of the Russian Federation, as well as
government officials such as President Vladimir Putin, can face up to 15 days in administrative detention. Private individuals who post fake news can be hit will small fines of between $45 and $75, and legal entities face much higher penalties of
up to $15,000, according to draft legislation.
The anti-fake news bill, which passed the Duma, or lower house of parliament, also compels ISPs to block access to content which offends human dignity and public morality.
It defines fake news as any unverified information that threatens someone's life and (or) their health or property, or threatens mass public disorder or danger, or threatens to interfere or disrupt vital infrastructure, transport or social
services, credit organizations, or energy, industrial, or communications facilities.
The Russian State Duma is considering multiple bills of law that would further stifle free speech in Russia's already heavily restricted internet environment.
One targets expressions of willful disregard towards the state. Another targets disinformation. All of them echo increasingly global concerns among governments about the political implications of disinformation -- and unbridled criticism -- on
the internet. And all have been heavily criticized by Russian civil society groups, experts, users and even the government's own ministers. Yet these bills promoting possible further crackdown on free speech still trudge on through the
The first bill, a sovereign internet initiative , which is yet to reach the floor of the lower chamber of Russia's bicameral parliament, seeks to establish state-regulated internet exchange points that would allow for increased monitoring and
control over internet traffic moving into and out of the country.
Under this law, individuals, officials or organizations accused of spreading fake news disguised as genuine public announcements which are found to promote public disorder or other serious disturbances could be fined for up to a million rubles
(slightly above USD $15,000), unless they remove the violating content in a day's time. The bill also provides measures through which Roskomnadzor, Russia's media watchdog, will order ISPs to block websites hosting the offending content.
The bill passed its first reading in late January with flying colours, receiving 336 votes in its favor and only 44 against, thanks to the 2016 landslide which guaranteed the ruling United Russia party an absolute voting majority.
The anti-fake news bill will be reviewed again by the Duma in February, conditioned on the revision of some of its most contentious points. The bill pushed through by Putin's party was met with a rare response of significant opposition, even
among the normally acquiescent branches of Russia's highly centralized and executive-biased power structure. The attorney general's office, among others, criticized the bill's vague definitions as potentially damaging to citizens' civil rights.
The second bill , which came up for review alongside the fake news-busting proposal, is seen as being even more controversial. It seeks to punish vulgar expressions of wilful disregard towards the state, its symbols and organs of its power with
fines of up to 5,000 rubles (around USD $76) and detention for up to 15 days. The bill also passed in the first reading on the same day, despite vocal criticism from both government members (Deputy Communications Minister Alexey Volin said that
calmly accepting criticism was an obligation for state officials, adding that they weren't made of sugar) and opposition parties.
Google has agreed to censor search results in Russia as dictated by country's internet censor. This will then allow Google to continue operations in Russia.
Google is one of a few search engines that does not adhere to an official list of banned websites that should not be included in search results.. However, Google already deletes 70% links from its search results to websites that internet censor
Roskomnadzor has banned.
In December of 2018, Roskomnadzor charged Google a fine of 500,000 rubles ($7,590) for refusing to subscribe to the banned list. The company did not challenge the agency's decision and chose to pay the fine. The Russian law that made the fine
possible does not allow Roskomnadzor to block sites that do not comply with its censorship demands, but that did not stop Roskomnadzor from threatening to block Google within Russian borders regardless.
The Russian TV censor has found certain violations in activities of the BBC World News broadcaster in Russia. The probe into the broadcaster's actions was launched in response to the British TV censor Ofcom's ruling against the Russian
propaganda channel RT for biased reporting about the Salisbury poisoning.
Roskomnadzor the Russian TV censor said BBC World News in Russia, has been found in breach of Russian legislation following an unscheduled inspection. It did not elaborate on the nature of the revealed violations but said that it is assessing
their severity. Roskomnadzor will later provide further information about the measures taken.
On a separate occasion, January 10, Roskomnadzor said it found some BBC online reports in breach of Russian anti-extremism laws as they contained some direct quotes of Al-Baghdadi, the head of Islamic State, something that is banned under a
Russia has latched onto the usefulness of claiming fake news when censoring messages that it doesn't like.
A new law passing through parliament will punish media outlets with fines and even imprisonment for publishing 'fake news' or information showing disrespect to government bodies and officials.
Prosecutors would be able to block websites without court orders, while publications found guilty of spreading unreliable socially-significant information would face fines of as much as $US15,000 under a measure passed Thursday by the lower house
of parliament at first reading.
A second law threatens people with up to 15 days in jail, as well as a ban on their publications, if they distribute material expressing a clear disrespect for society, the state, the official state symbols of the Russian Federation, the
Constitution of the Russian Federation and bodies exercising state power.
Russia's internet censor, Roskomnadzor, has filed administrative proceedings against Facebook and Twitter for failing to comply with local censorship laws.
Roskomnadzor said that the two social networks did not explain how and when they would comply with legislation requiring them to store Russian users' personal data on servers in Russia. Roskomnadzor told CNBC:
The companies managing the social networks of Facebook and Twitter provided formal answers to our demands to confirm the localization of personal data of Russian users in Russia. They do not contain specifics about the actual implementation of
the legislation at the current moment, nor about the timing of the implementation of these standards in the future.
In this regard, today Roskomnadzor begins administrative proceedings against both companies.