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Russia's Internet Defense League: A 'Grassroots Initiative' Created By The Government

Russia's new law on the Internet was passed today in the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament.

The law, which will come into force on November 1, gives authorities the power to blacklist certain websites. While ostensibly the law's goal is to tackle child pornography or undesirable websites, pertaining to drugs or suicide for example, Russian critics have said it could be loosely interpreted by the courts and will be used to clamp down on the opposition. It has also been criticized by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which said the law was going in "a troubling and dangerous direction."

In an opinion piece for "The Moscow Times" Georgy Bovt details how the law could work in practice:

The plan is for a special organization to monitor the Internet and then inform the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service if it finds harmful websites. That organization then calls on a special agency authorized by the Russian government. Next, the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service informs the owner of the site and the Internet provider hosting it. The site owner is given 24 hours to remove the dangerous content. If that is not done, the host is given one more day to do so. If neither comply, the pages or entire site in question, along with their IP addresses, are listed with the registry of harmful sites and blocked.

In addition, any Russian court can also add a site to this blacklist. In the past, there have been several court rulings against sites operated by opposition groups accused of extremism. What's more, it is no secret that courts in the regions might have a different understanding of what constitutes a harmful site than Moscow courts. But regional courts will have the right to ban a site of their choice throughout all of Russia, effectively giving them federal powers to censor the Internet.

One of the "NGOs" doing the monitoring is Russia's League for a Safe Internet. The league is styled as a body to defend against child pornography on the Internet (and no doubt that is a significant part of its work). There are links providing help to victims of child abuse and concerned citizens can report websites they deem to be harmful.

The league's website gives the impression of a group of concerned citizens and professionals who have come together in order to self-regulate the Internet and thus avoid top-down censorship. But the league has little in common with the U.S.-based Internet Defense League, a grassroots movement of concerned citizens launched after outcry about the controversial SIPA and PIPA legislation in the United States.

According to RFE/RL's Russian Service, the league was set up in 2011 by government-controlled Rostelekom, privately owned phone companies, Internet service providers, and Russian software developers. It's probably no coincidence that it was established after the Arab Spring and the much-discussed role of social media.

Significantly, the league's main trustee was the then Communications Minister Igor Shchyogolev. As my colleague, @RusPoliceWatch, pointed out, the league shares the same address with the ministry at Tverskaya 7 in Moscow. (In fairness, the league's website is open about receiving support from the Communications Ministry.)

In Jeffrey Carr's book, "Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld," the author suggests that the real focus of the league is not child pornography but, in fact, social media. "The league's website awards its members ranks based on the social networking sites they identify that contain malicious content," Carr wrote.

Critics of Russia's new Internet law have voiced concerns that the authorities could easily and swiftly close down a blog for an infraction such as a third party posting a link to child pornography in the comments section.

Carr goes further and speculates that the league is "probably created and backed by the Russian security services" and highlights the Russian Law on Operational Search Activities, where law enforcement can legally use information provided by "collaborative relationships" with third parties.

In the past, the Kremlin has been vocal about its ideas on direct democracy via the Internet. With initiatives like crowdsourcing changes on a new police law or its "Russia Without Idiots" website, where citizens can blast local officials for not fixing the roads, it's hard to tell whether these are well-intentioned e-government initiatives or just stage-managed shams of little ultimate consequence.

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