The lower house of the Russian parliament passed a Bill in July on regulation of the internet which allows the blocking of websites containing specific banned content. The 'Internet Blacklist' Bill provoked widespread condemnation, including protests by freedom of speech advocates, and blackouts of Russian Wikipedia.
Protesters portrayed the new law, due to come into force next January, as a draconian new tool for the authorities to suppress freedom of speech and block internet sites they found politically undesirable. Yet the true picture is far more nuanced.
The almost unanimous passing of the Bill obscured the fact that earlier readings had seen fundamental revisions, on the grounds that previous drafts had been ambiguous giving the judiciary and government precisely the powers that activists are now concerned about. Previous references to 'harmful content' were amended to a specific list of websites containing child abuse imagery, or assisting in drug manufacture or the promotion of suicide.
Although the technical implementation of the blocking has been subject to informed criticism by industry bodies, the powers granted over Russian website content are in fact nothing new. The ambiguous nature of web control in
The law 'On Police', for example, introduced in early 2011, allowed for the summary closure of internet resources providing 'conditions which assist the commission of a crime or administrative violation'. This in effect constitutes a reversal of the burden of proof for the legality of internet content; before the passing of this law, one legal route for authorities wanting to block a website would be to seek a court decision banning it for being 'extremist'.The new law requires no court order.
In addition, the rules for registration of domain names allow for an internet address to be deleted 'on the basis of a decision in writing by a head, deputy head, or equivalent public official' of one of
And overshadowing all internet activity in
Russian authorities, therefore, already have all necessary tools for a clampdown on freedom of expression -- should they choose to use them.
The protests over election results in
This is not the first instance of collision between the authorities and the law over what should and should not be allowed online: in
This is an indication that far from being rigid, the overall Russian attitude to online dissent is still to crystallize. As put by Prime Minister
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