Russian crackdown on dissent goes virtual

In its most recent attempt to quell dissent, Russia adopted a new Internet bill that appears aimed at restricting public debate.

By , Correspondent

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    Russian lawmakers attend a session of the lower house of the State Duma in Moscow on July 6. Russia's State Duma has rushed through parliament a new Internet bill that appears aimed at restricting the means of public debate and protest.
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In a pattern that's becoming familiar, Russia's State Duma has rushed through parliament a new Internet bill that appears aimed at restricting the means of public debate and protest.

The new bill, which has yet to be ratified by the upper house of parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, raced through three parliamentary readings in just a few days and was adopted by the Duma on Wednesday. It would authorize the creation of a special federal agency to determine which websites should be shut down, and force Internet providers to install expensive "filtering" equipment to black out illegal content – and potentially any content.

"The danger here is that a mechanism is created to block any material on Internet sites. Whether and how this mechanism will be used is another matter, but it will exist," says Stanislav Kozlovsky, director of Wikimedia.ru, which is associated with the Russian-language version of Wikipedia. "In fact the means of censorship have been introduced."

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It comes on the heels of the fast-track adoption of a series of new restrictive laws. A draconian law on public rallies was passed last month providing tough penalties for anyone engaging in non-sanctioned protests. Last week the Duma introduced another controversial bill that will force foreign-funded NGOs engaging in loosely-defined political activism to self-identify as "foreign agents." The bill is expected to be passed within days.

On Wednesday, the same day the Internet bill was adopted, the Duma passed a related bill on first reading that could further stifle public debate. Critics say it could be used to chill media reporting by criminalizing "defamation," as determined by a Russian court, which would in the future be punishable by a fine up to the equivalent of $160,000 or five years in prison. On Thursday a leading deputy of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Pavel Krasheninnikov, told journalists that jail terms might be eliminated from further versions of the slander bill.

Political abuse

The new Internet bill would give providers just one day to eliminate offensive content. Non-compliance could force Russian-based websites – such as Facebook, VKontakte, or Wikipedia – to shut down.

The potential for political abuse of the draft law led Russia's largest Internet portal, Yandex.ru, to temporarily cross out the word "everything" on its logo on Wednesday, which normally reads "you can find everything" on Yandex. Russian Wikipedia closed down on Tuesday to protest the bill, posting only a notice that said: "Imagine a world where knowledge isn't free."

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a self-described computer geek who now heads the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, defended the bill as a balanced tool for protecting people, particularly children, from evils that currently roam free on the Internet. "The basic principle is that the Internet should be free," Russian media quoted him as saying Wednesday. "But it should also observe people's basic rights and laws, including the right to information, but also the right to protection from harmful content."

Critics of the bill insist that they aren't interested in defending websites that advocate suicide, substance abuse, excessively risky behavior, child pornography, and other things on the Duma’s initial blacklist. But they do not trust current authorities with the power to impartially enforce such a law, either. They point to what they say is a creeping crackdown on dissent. The trend has been gathering steam since Mr. Putin's inauguration in May, including a raft of tough new legislation, arrests of over a dozen opposition activists, and other forms of harassment directed at protest leaders.

"The issue here is that authorities are systematically narrowing the circle for free expression, assembly, and protest," says Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, a grassroots Moscow-based movement.

"How can we not view this new law in that context? We think existing law already provides enough instruments to go after child pornographers and other malefactors of that sort. This new law appears aimed at punishing people without a court decision, by using state investigative organs only, and we already have ample experience with the way that works out," he adds.

Presidential misgivings

Putin's own presidential council, a public advisory body, expressed serious misgivings this week about the Internet bill, warning that the list of materials the Duma bill proposed to block is "too broad." It said the law won't help police to combat crimes like child pornography. It might be used to restrict legitimate types of information, and called for more scrutiny and public discussion before it's signed into law.

Russian presidents often ignore the findings of advisory bodies, but some experts say they hope Putin will listen to his council in this case.

"It's not law yet. The presidential council has pointed out that it's too vague and still needs polishing," says Alexei Lukatsky, a security consultant with Cisco Russia. "We may hope there will be further amendments."

But Alexander Cherkasov, head of the board of directors of Memorial, Russia's largest grassroots human rights organization, says even with a few amendments, the basic direction of the legislation will be away from public accountability and toward more arbitrary powers for the authorities.

"All these laws have the same pattern, instead of making it easy to obtain and use information, it regulates prohibition," he says. "Even fine words about protecting children's interests cannot camouflage this reality. We need proper instruments of public control over the execution of these laws. Without that, we can only fear they will be abused."

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