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Russia: Proposed Legislation Threatens Free Speech On Internet

Washington, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An advocate for free speech on the Internet says proposed amendments on mass media law currently being discussed in the Russian Duma could prevent individuals in that country from openly expressing opinions on the world's largest computer network.

Raafat Toss, an attorney for the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, a U.S.-based, non-profit organization devoted to free speech on the Internet, told RFE/RL that the proposed amendments would require messages and materials distributed via computer networks to be included in the Russian legal definition of mass media.

Toss says if the amendments are adopted, it would force any publisher of electronic information to register and obtain a license with the government. In other words, the new mass media law would put people who have a home page on the Internet or send electronic newsletters in the same category as television and radio broadcasters.

As a result, says Toss, people under 18 years of age, foreigners, persons who own more than ten percent of foreign capital, or a corporation where 30 percent of employees are foreigners would be forbidden from publishing any "mass media" in Russia, if the circulation is more than 1,000.

Additionally, Toss says these people would then be forced to go through the same complex, bureaucratic procedure that owners of television and radio stations must complete.

Moreover, says Toss, the proposed $1,000 fee for registration will certainly "chill" free expression on the Internet. Violators of the new law, adds Toss, are also subject to fines and may even have their computers confiscated.

Says Toss: "The registration process as well as the exorbitant fees and fines would unduly burden and ultimately censor speech and expression; people would refrain from voicing their opinions. Coupled with the accompanying sanctions, the individual rights that are enshrined in international treaties and in the Russian constitution itself would be turned into empty rhetoric."

Toss says he strongly believes the Internet is not and should not be considered a part of the mass media. Instead, he says, it should be considered "the medium of the masses."

Says Toss: "Like no other medium before, and unlike the mass media, the Internet has the power to democratize speech; and it allows individuals the power to express their ideas and opinions directly to a global audience, while allowing them access to other ideas, opinions, and information to which that may not otherwise have access. And unlike the mass media, it empowers individuals with the ability to reach millions of other individuals."

Toss says that if the Russian Duma adopts the proposed changes to the media law it would be a serious blow for democracy.

Says Toss: "It wasn't too long ago that people in Russia had to register their typewriters. So, it would basically be a step back for Russia toward regulating speech, rather than being a model for online freedom."

Not everyone supports the proposed changes. At least one Russian Duma deputy, Yuri Nestorov, has offered an amendment excluding mention of "computer information" from the bill.

Other Russian Internet users have devoted entire web pages to the issue, outlining the proposed changes in the law and inviting comment from online browsers.