Russia debates internet blacklist

July 3, 2012 7:18 pm

By Charles Clover in Moscow

A blacklist of internet sites being debated by Russia’s parliament could create “real censorship” of the internet, according to a human rights watchdog set up by the Kremlin.

“We believe it is very important to stop the implementation of censorship on the Russian-language section of the internet,” Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights said in a statement on Tuesday.

A series of amendments to existing laws, which taken together create a single register for websites containing illegal content, was submitted to the Duma last month. Opponents claim that the legislation is a veiled attempt to silence opposition voices and a creeping attempt to implement a China-style censorship “great firewall”.

The council warned that the understanding of what could be considered harmful material “could easily be expanded” after the law was passed, and complained that the law was being run through the Duma “without widespread public debate”.

The internet black list would be managed by Roskomnadzor, the communications regulator. But according to Ilya Kostunov, a deputy of the ruling United Russia party, the security services would be able to place websites on the list that were determined to have “extremist content”.

Two recent cases have highlighted the extent to which the definition of objectionable content can be stretched. Compromat.ru, a website devoted to publishing press reports of corruption, last week was forced to relocate to a .net domain after its .ru domain was closed by order of Moscow city prosecutor’s office. The same thing happened to moscow-post.ru, a news website, which was forced to relocate to moscow-post.com.

Vedomosti, a Moscow newspaper, reported on Tuesday that both sites had lost their .ru domains following court decisions. Both were accused of printing “unchecked information”, which followed a complaint by a representative of president Vladimir Putin’s administration. Vedomosti is part-owned by the Financial Times.

Supporters of the legislation say it is aimed only at widely prohibited content such as child pornography, hate websites, drugs propaganda and information “provoking children to act in ways which are harmful to themselves and their health”, according to the text of the amendments.

However, opponents have pointed out that it comes amid a series of legislative initiatives aimed at curbing protest. These include a law sharply increasing fines for violations at public demonstrations, passed last month. Another piece of legislation just submitted would force non-governmental organisations receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”, which appears aimed at undermining their credibility and exposing them to greater legal scrutiny.

Under the legislation, internet providers will have to install equipment enabling the government to block offending websites. The equipment, estimated by the council to cost anywhere from $50m to $10bn, would be in addition to a system already in place designed to monitor internet traffic and installed by providers at the behest of the security services.

The Presidential Council on Human Rights was created in 1993 and its opinions are rarely if ever factored into Kremlin policy. However, its semi-official status gives it weight in pointing out the shortcomings of government policy and legal matters. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.


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