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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."