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Interview: Russian Internet Inching ‘In The Direction of China’

Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 30 signed legislation that could punish Internet users with prison terms for reposting or retweeting material deemed “extremist” by the government. Critics call it the latest in a series of moves that show Russia is inching toward Chinese-style restrictions on the Internet, a key platform for free discussion in a country dominated by Kremlin-friendly media. RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth interviewed Irina Levova, director of strategic projects at the Institute for Internet Research in Moscow, to discuss where the RuNet is headed.

RFE/RL: President Vladimir Putin this week signed into law amendments introducing criminal liability for disseminating "extremism" online. This appears to suggest possible jail terms of up to five years for anyone who retweets material deemed “extremist.” What do you think of the law?

Irina Levova: I fear that perhaps the initiative is the correct one, but -- if we are talking about court rulings and about not allowing the dissemination of extremist materials online -- a question remains: What is extremism? By whom, how, and according to what procedure is it decided whether material is extremist or not. It's also unclear how they will locate a specific citizen who has retweeted something or copied a link.

RFE/RL: So you see a problem not so much in the content of the legislation, but in the way it’s supposed to work?

Levova: The initiative is perhaps the correct one, but as usual it has not been worked on enough. The functioning of the Internet from a technical point of view is a lot more complicated than it seems to our dear lawmakers. And to declare something is one thing, but to carry it out is something else.

RFE/RL: But it does seem harsh to jail someone for a retweet. Is this a blow to free speech?

Levova: I can't say that this is a blow to free speech. A blow to the freedom of speech is when something in particular is censored or forbidden. Here we are talking about content that genuinely is forbidden in the Russian Federation; reprinting it is also in theory forbidden. Here we are facing problems in the implementation of the regulations proposed here. We can't implement them as they are intended. This won't be any blow to freedom. In Russia, things here happen differently than in other countries. You can write whatever [laws] you want, but in fact only 20 percent of it will work -- and 20 percent is a good result.

RFE/RL: Some observers say the Kremlin is trying to consolidate its grip on the Internet. Is this fair to say?

Levova: Well, this is entirely logical considering the current political trajectory. Everything is being done sequentially, and I have the impression that there is even a road map and that the Russian Federation is on a rather different path than, for instance, America or Europe. We are moving more in the direction of China or, perhaps, North Korea, but in no way in the direction of the United States or countries in the European Union. We can speculate on and on whether this is a good or bad thing, but the facts speak to precisely this trend.

RFE/RL: What measures in particular give this impression?

Levova: Well, for instance, now all servers need to be maintained on the territory of the Russian Federation. Tomorrow [July 4] is the second reading [in the State Duma] of the amendments on personal data that require everyone to store personal data on servers in the Russian Federation. Then there's the registration of bloggers with more than 3,000 visits with [Russian government communications regulator] Roskomnadzor.

RFE/RL: Do you think the clampdown on the Internet is accelerating?

Levova: Of course.

RFE/RL: When did this trend start?

Levova: It began in 2012 when the law on blacklists was passed. Last year, the law on blocking resources for copyright infringement was passed.… Then more categories were added to the blacklist. Now, instead of one law on information, we have a whole four clauses describing what can be blocked.

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