By Keir Giles

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 Russia, and the misleading nature of reporting about the 'blacklist', which creates the impression of rigid censorship, are illustrated by the fact that the Russian authorities already possess extremely strong legislative tools for controlling content, but ordinarily apply these with a very light touch.

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 Russia's several law enforcement agencies. Again, the decision is administrative, with no judicial involvement.

And overshadowing all internet activity in Russia is the SORM system -- the 'system for operational search measures', which automatically collects information on internet use by subscribers within Russia and makes it available for law enforcement purposes. Installed compulsorily by all internet service providers, SORM provides a ready-made evidence trail for prosecutions of any online activity.

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 Russia at the end of 2011, in large part organized using social media, provoked an apparent mixed response from the authorities. Pressure on websites, including online attacks which were allegedly sponsored by the authorities, was occasional and unsustained, and in at least one case, subject to successful legal challenge: the Russian Facebook equivalent VKontakte refused to supply subscriber information to the Federal Security Service on the grounds that the request was illegal.

This is not the first instance of collision between the authorities and the law over what should and should not be allowed online: in March 2011, Russian parliamentary commission hearings on legislative control of the internet noted that 'at the level of regional authorities and law-enforcement agencies, excessively severe and often unfounded restriction of the internet continues' -- a vignette of how legislators in Russia see the internet as an enabler and excessive restriction as undesirable, while the security authorities consider online content a potential threat.

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 Dmitry Medvedev, the internet 'should be regulated by a set of rules, which mankind has yet to work out. It's a very difficult process.'

Keir Giles is a director of Conflict Studies Research Centre, an analytical group focusing on Eurasian security issues


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