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New Russian Bill Would Expand Internet Censorship, HRW Warns

People attend an opposition rally against the censorship of the Internet in Moscow in March 2019.
People attend an opposition rally against the censorship of the Internet in Moscow in March 2019.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the Russian parliament to dismiss a new bill giving authorities the power to block websites that have censored Russian state media content, saying it would increase censorship in Russia.

Anastasia Zlobina, coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at HRW, said in a statement on November 23 that global Internet companies’ “often opaque and inconsistent policies and practices around removing or moderating online content deserve criticism.

“But totally blocking online platforms used by millions of Russians, as this bill proposes, does the opposite of protecting access to information,” she said.

The new draft law, which was submitted to parliament on November 19, would introduce a registry for “website owners” that censor “information of public importance,” if the authorities deem the censorship to be “discriminatory or based on economic and political sanctions against Russia.”

The proposed legislation authorizes the prosecutor-general to order full or partial blocking of the listed websites if they continue to “violate” Russians’ right of access to information.

Since April, Russian authorities recorded at least 20 incidents in which online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube censored content from state-owned Russian media companies such as RT and RIA Novosti, according to the bill’s explanatory note.

Zlobina said the Russian authorities already have a number of tools to restrict access to online content that have raised concerns over the arbitrary and extrajudicial blocking of legitimate content, including the 2019 so-called “sovereign Internet” law, which allows the government to use technology to track, filter, and reroute Internet traffic.

Last month, a draft law introducing fines for refusing to block content deemed inappropriate by the authorities passed its first reading in parliament.

And in December 2019, fines for noncompliance with data storage regulations were increased by up to 6 million rubles ($78,700).

Zlobina noted that in recent years Russian authorities have ordered Internet services and platforms blocked for noncompliance with the country’s legislation.

The European Court of Human Rights in June ruled on four cases brought against Russia, finding that blocking entire websites violates the owners’ right to impart information and the public’s right to receive it.

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