By Baurzhan Rakhmetov, PhD, Assistant Professor of International School of Economics, KAZGUU University, Astana, Kazakhstan
Over the last decade, Russia has passed numerous restrictive laws that strictly regulate activities in cyberspace. The most recent ones that have significantly limited freedom on the internet – Federal law N32-FZ and Federal law N63-FZ – were adopted in March 2022 amid the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine. Both laws establish large fines and criminal liability (up to 15 years) for spreading fake information about the Russian military and state institutions abroad, respectively.
Within the first five months since the enactment of the N32-FZ law, 80 criminal cases have already been opened, targeting mostly politicians, journalists, and activists. Thus far, the strictest punishment of seven years in prison was given to Moscow municipal deputy Alexey Gorinov. Writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, blogger Veronika Belotserkovskaya, publicist Alexander Nevzorov, and journalist Andrey Soldatov are also accused of spreading fake information about the Russian military.
In addition to putting pressure on journalists and activists, about 140 thousand internet resources, including social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, have been blocked in Russia since 24 February 2022.
It is clear that Russian authorities aim to stop the distribution of non-mainstream news, information, and interpretations critical of the government. These relentless attempts to control information flows, which significantly limit freedom on the internet, build upon comprehensive and highly restrictive legislation passed within the last decade.
Initially cyberspace in Russia was relatively free from government interference. The Kremlin’s lax approach to the internet changed after mass anti-government protests in 2011-12, in which social media was credited with the mobilisation and organisation of opposition political action. Putin’s regime, being caught off-guard, realised the liberating potential of digital technologies and platforms and turned its attention and institutional power to the internet.
One of the first laws that targeted the internet was Federal law N398-FZ, also known as the Lugovoi Law, which was passed in December 2013. The law allows Russian authorities, without asking a court, to deny access to websites that contain content deemed extremist. The interpretation of the law is vague as opposition and independent websites have been targeted. For example, access to the website of Garry Kasparov and the blog of Alexey Navalny, both in opposition to Putin’s regime, was restricted under the extremist pretext without a court order.
Then, in July 2014, Russian Parliament passed Federal law N242-FZ, better known as the Data Localization Law. The law dictates that foreign tech firms – big and small – store data on Russians within the territory of Russia. As a warning to others, LinkedIn with six million subscribers from Russia was soon banned for not complying with the law. In February 2020, Twitter and Facebook were fined for the same reason while Uber and Viber complied with data localization requirements.
Two years later, in July 2016, Federal law N374-FZ, known as the Yarovaya Law, was adopted. Now, internet and communications providers must store data of subscribers for three years. The data storage period for social media platforms, internet forums, and messengers is one year. Importantly, according to the law, the government can request metadata from internet operators and companies without a court order.
In July 2017, the use of anonymisers and VPNs to access blocked websites was prohibited in Russia, according to Federal law N276-FZ. The law requires that anonymisers and VPNs which fail to restrict access to blacklisted websites—of which there are more than one million 239 thousand—are blocked. Search engines are also not allowed to list banned resources in search results. In June 2018, new amendments introduced fines for not complying with the law. For instance, in 2020, Google was fined for not taking down banned content from search results.
In May 2019, Russia passed Federal law N90-FZ, informally the Sovereign internet law, which aims to decouple the Russian segment of the internet from the global network. The law also promises to create a national domain name system (DNS) ostensibly in case Russia is cut off from the internet. Yet despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ICANN, the organisation that manages the global DNS, refrained from disconnecting Russia from the global internet. In addition, according to the law, internet providers are required to establish special state equipment on IXPs so that all internet traffic within the country can be analysed and filtered. This enabled the state regulator Roskomnadzor to directly restrict access to any websites, avoiding any intermediaries.
In December 2020, Federal laws N511-FZ and N482-FZ were passed. The former law establishes fines in case websites do not delete content deemed illegal by Russian authorities. As demonstration of serious intentions, the law was applied in March 2021 when the government slowed down Twitter. Meanwhile, the latter law establishes sanctions such as fines, throttling, and blocking if internet companies are found to censor Russian media outlets. In March 2022, after the war on Ukraine has begun, Facebook has been blocked in Russia for censoring Russian media on its platform.
Lastly, in July 2021 Vladimir Putin signed Federal law N236-FZ, which requires internet companies with audiences of more than 500 thousand Russian users to open representative offices in Russia. In other words, Big Tech has been obliged to open official branches on the territory of Russia so that they fall under the Russian jurisdiction. Thus, there will be no way for local offices to avoid state pressure (in the form of fines, threats, and intimidation) to delete content perceived as illegal by the Kremlin. The law gave the government another legal tool to put pressure on foreign internet companies.
Motivations to adopt such restrictive legislation seem to be clear: authoritarian regimes like in Russia fear the liberating potential of the internet. They are perfectly aware of the hype surrounding digital technologies to promote democracy and combat oppressive regimes. In addition to domestic protests in Russia in 2011-12 and 2021, examples also include the 2011 Arab Spring and 2014 Euromaidan in Ukraine, in which social media was credited with the coordination of anti-government movements and consequent regime change, contributing to the authoritarians’ distrust of the internet. The Russian president, for instance, does not hide his distrust of the internet, considering it a CIA project.
Consequently, when the internet is tightly regulated and controlled by the government and access to social media and non-mainstream news is denied while critical and politically sensitive information is deleted or blocked, there is little, if any, space for journalists and activists to investigate and report on state wrongdoings. Dozens of criminal cases already opened in the wake of the war in Ukraine – thanks to restrictive legal framework – only prove the point that independent media in Russia is on the losing side vis-à-vis the Russian state. The internet with its ability to quickly distribute information has long been a liability to Russia’s authoritarian political system.