Freedom of information threatened by website blacklisting and recriminalization of defamation
The lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, yesterday approved a bill on third reading that will allow the authorities to compile a website blacklist, fuelling concern about Internet filtering and censorship. The bill will have to be passed by the upper house and ratified by President Vladimir Putin before it takes effect.
The bill (Draft Law No. 89417-6), which amends the Law on Information, is intended to protect children from content regarded as particularly “harmful.” Websites “containing pornography or extremist ideas, or promoting suicide or use of drugs” could be placed directly on the blacklist without referring to a court. In other cases, a court’s approval would have to be obtained first.
According to Global Voices, once a website appeared on the list, the site’s hosting-provider would have 24 hours to notify the site-owner, who must then delete the offending data. If the owner fails to act, the hosting-provider is required to shut down or delete the site itself. In the event that the hosting-provider fails or refuses to act, it joins the registry and then web-providers must cut off access to that entire hosting-provider. Anyone included on the blacklist then has three months to appeal the decision in court.
The bill imposes a “collective punishment” on Internet users since it could render law-abiding websites and legitimate websites inaccessible.
“We are alarmed by this bill’s ambiguities as the Russian’s government record on news and information control makes us fear the worst,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We suspect that the implementation of this blacklist will open the way to abusive filtering and blocking of online content, with the aim of censoring the Russian opposition and government critics.”
Wikipedia’s Russian-language site (ru.wikipedia.org) suspended operations on 10 July in protest. Its home page showed a bar across Wikipedia logo and the words: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” This protest against a bill that could lead to “extrajudicial Internet censorship” was taken up by the Yandex search engine, which placed a bar across the word “Everything” in its slogan “Everything will be found.”
The bill is vague about the specially created federal body that would select the targeted sites. Point 4 of article 5 of the bill also fails to give a precise definition of “harmful” content or sufficiently precise reasons for adding a site to the blacklist. Over-blocking is likely.
Any generalized filtering system must be opposed. In a May 2011 report, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue said the flow of information via the Internet should be restricted only “in few, exceptional, and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law.”
La Rue’s report added that: “Holding intermediaries liable for the content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, reacted to the vote by urging the authorities to “suspend the bill and put it out for public discussion with the participation of experts on the issue.”
She has also criticized the recriminalization of defamation in Russia, which, she said, “runs against the overall trend in the OSCE region to decriminalize speech offences.” This was in response to the Duma’s passage of a separate bill on first reading yesterday evening that would reverse last November’s decriminalization of media offences by the Duma.
Proposed by the ruling United Russia party, Draft Law No. 106999-6, which still has to be approved on second and third reading, would again make defamation punishable by sentences of up to five years in prison or a fine of 500,000 roubles (12,500 euros).
A coalition of independent Russian journalists has launched an online petition for the withdrawal of this bill. It is available here in Russian. Reporters Without Borders urges Russian speakers to sign it.
These two bills have come at a time when the Kremlin seems to be turning increasingly to the Duma, which is dominated by the ruling party, to give it the tools to crackdown on various kinds of opposition.
“We urge the Duma’s members to reject this draconian bill on second reading,” Reporters Without Borders said. “With the entire world gradually decriminalizing defamation, it would send a terrible signal if Russia moved in the opposite direction. Combined with website blacklists, sky-high fines for illegal demonstrations, and grotesque regulations for NGOs that get foreign funding, this new bill’s sudden passage suggests a headlong rush towards much more repression.”
Russia is one of the countries that have been placed “under surveillance” in the latest Reporters Without Borders report on “Enemies of the Internet,” issued last March. It is ranked 142nd out of 179 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Follow the Duma debates (live)
Watch a video showing journalists’ demonstration in front of the Duma today (Source : Novaya Gazeta)