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Moscow Enlists Youth Agency In Campaign To Censor Online Content

People attend a rally to protest against the tightening of state control over the Internet in Moscow on March 10.

MOSCOW -- Russia's Federal Agency for Youth Affairs now has the power to block websites and online content it considers harmful to children, as part of the government's broad effort to build a comprehensive system for monitoring the Internet.

The agency, commonly known as Rosmolodyozh, was granted the authority during a parliamentary session held on March 21. It’s part of a package of changes to a 2012 law creating a blacklist of websites under the oversight of the communications watchdog Roskomnadzor.

A corresponding document posted to the government's legal portal on March 25 explained that Rosmolodyozh will be able to censor any online content "encouraging children to engage or otherwise involving them in illegal activity that represents a threat to their lives and/or health or the lives and/or health of others."

The move makes Rosmolodyozh the sixth state organ granted the right to enforce online censorship. Each of the six is tasked with monitoring content that falls within its official purview. The Interior Ministry, for instance, deals with content that promotes the use or possession of drugs; the Tax Ministry clamps down on illegal gambling sites.

Proposals to punish attempts at corrupting Russia's younger generation have been voiced by Russian officials for years.

In 2013, the country introduced legislation banning gay "propaganda," with the goal of shielding children "from information promoting the denial of traditional family values," but which rights groups have criticized as homophobic and discriminatory.

Young people participated enthusiastically in a wave of anti-corruption protests in March 2017.
Young people participated enthusiastically in a wave of anti-corruption protests in March 2017.

After a wave of anti-corruption protests in March 2017 saw the active involvement of teenagers, many of them motivated by the online campaign of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin unveiled a series of measures aimed ostensibly at protecting children from corrupting online content, as well as a law banning any action that might encourage them to participate in unsanctioned protests.

On March 26, a Navalny supporter in Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave, became the first person prosecuted under that law, which Putin signed last year. Ivan Luzin was fined 30,000 rubles ($470) for appearing alongside two teenagers in a demonstration against police torture last month.

In late December, culminating a year that had witnessed a spate of knife and gun attacks in Russian schools, President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning social-media pages from propagating violence and any other online content seen as promoting harmful acts.

It is this law that Rosmolodyozh has now been granted authority to enforce.

Critics say such measures are elements of an ambitious government campaign to bring the Russian Internet to heel at a time when the Kremlin is becoming increasingly aware of the web's power to incite protest and civil disobedience among a population disillusioned by the pace of economic reform and the scale of official corruption.

“We expect greater self-censorship in the Russian Internet, and it’s unlikely this measure will help the interests of children," Sarkis Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda, an organization that monitors online censorship in Russia, said of the law.

In a recent statement, Roskomsvoboda cited studies showing social media had, at best, a minor role in fueling the violent incidents that took place in Russian schools.

“The blocking of web resources has no impact on reducing youth suicides or the use of drugs among children," Darbinyan said in a telephone interview. “This initiative deteriorates further the space for online free speech in Russia."

In January, the Education Ministry announced that it would allocate 628 million rubles ($9.7 million) over a three-year period in an effort to root out online content that poses harm to the lives or health of Russian children. It will be part of a top-down campaign to monitor such content that involves the operation of multiple “cyberteams" across the country, and thousands of volunteers.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.