The present report considers the issue of restrictions on freedom of the Internet in Russia during 2011. The conclusions of the report are based on the results of monitoring by the Agora Human Rights Association and are a follow-up to a similar report published in June 2011 (http://openinform.ru/news/unfreedom/22.06.2011/25193/).
Monitoring conducted by Agora shows that, in practically all regards, pressure on Internet users in Russia continues to grow. Murders and attacks have resumed, and the number of Internet websites included in a federal list of extremist materials has increased (from 13 in 2010 to 22 in 2011). There have been further developments in the unlawful practice of blocking access to whole websites because of the publication of individual materials designated as extremist. In 2011 criminal charges were brought in a number of cases related to publications on the Internet of materials critical of the authorities. In the country as a whole, a significant number of staff employed at educational institutions and libraries were disciplined for violating instructions to stop access to particular Internet resources.
At the same time, Agora’s legal analysts believe there has been a gradual rolling back of the practice of bringing charges against activists for inciting hatred in relation to social groups, defined as “representatives of government”, “police officers” and so on.
For the whole of 2011 Agora registered 500 instances of restrictions on freedom of access to the Internet or persecution of Internet users for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Crimes of violence against Internet activists
In 2011, 11 crimes of violence against journalists and bloggers that could be linked to their professional or public activities were registered.
The saddest event of the year was the murder of Khadzhimurad Kamalov, founder of the independent Dagestani newspaper Chernovik and associated website, on the night of 15 December. The fact that similar crimes have occurred in neighbouring Ingushetiya (the murders – which remain unsolved - of Magomed Evloev, the founder of the website Ingushetia.ru, and Maksharip Aushev, who took over the website following the murder of Evloev), and the number of recorded instances of government pressure on Internet activists in comparison with other regions, indicate that, in our opinion, it is possible to speak of a certain regional specificity.
In terms of the state of Internet freedom in Russia as a whole, in addition to the increasing number of crimes of violence against Web activists, the following main features of developments in 2011 can be identified.
Proposals on regulation of the Internet
Political leaders began to make regular reference in their public speeches to the Internet. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that to limit the Internet ‘is technically complex and politically incorrect’, despite the fact that ‘the main Internet resources lie are not in our hands, but in foreign countries, more accurately, beyond the ocean. It is precisely this that creates anxiety among the security agencies, who believe that these resources could be used against the interests of society and the state’. In his turn, Yury Chaika, Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, at a meeting of the Coordination Council of CIS Prosecutors, said it was necessary to establish oversight of the activities of social media. The Ministry of Internal Affairs supported the Prosecutor: ‘Freedom of expression is already partially restricted in many areas, so restriction on information of this kind will not be a violation of the law.’ Also in the past year the question of eliminating anonymity on the Internet was again raised. The head of the Office for Special Technical Measures of the Ministry of Internal Affairs proposed this, accusing social media of constituting a threat ‘to the foundations of society’.
Initiatives of this kind clearly bear witness to two tendencies – the conservative and the liberal. The first category includes demands by representatives of the security services to ban the use in Russia of Skype, Google and Hotmail because of the alleged impossibility of supervising the information transmitted via these services; the initiative by Vladimir Churov, chair of the Central Election Commission, to introduce criminal liability for violations of election campaign law; and the proposal by Russia put forward at the United Nations for international regulation of information transmitted via the Internet.
The second tendency is represented by President Dmitry Medvedev. On more than one occasion in the past year President Medvedev reaffirmed the need to keep the Internet free from censorship. In our opinion, Medvedev’s role in the development of the Russian segment of the World Wide Web is ambiguous. On the one hand, for the first time a leader of our country has devoted so much attention to the Internet, regularly speaking out about its significance and the need for freedom. Traditionally in Russia a politician’s rhetoric largely determines their practice. Medvedev has played an important role in popularizing the Internet among the political elite, and introduced Internet terminology into common use among the country’s top officials. It is not accidental that it has been during Medvedev’s presidency that governors, ministers and deputies began en masse to use the Internet, started blogging on LiveJournal and Twitter, or on the pages of Facebook and Vkontakte. Among the more active bloggers are the governors Oleg Chirkunov, Aleksandr Tkachev, Nikita Belykh, and the deputies Oleg Shein, Ilya Ponomarev, Gennady Gudkov. There are also official blogs of government departments, for example of the Ministry of Health and Social Development, of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Agency, and of the Federal Penitentiary Agency.
Decriminalization of defamation and insult
Among President Medvedev’s achievements, without doubt, are a number of legislative initiatives. The issue of the decriminalization of defamation and insult had been raised many times over the years, and the passing of the presidential amendments to the Criminal Code had an immediate and positive effect in terms of law enforcement practice. Charges were dropped in a series of criminal cases related to publications on the Internet (charges were dropped against the lawyer Andrei Stolbunov and human rights defender Oleg Orlov, the journalist Sergei Mikhailov was acquitted, and the journalist Irek Murtazin and blogger Yury Egorov were given the right to have their criminal records annulled).
However, in welcoming the removal of Articles 129, 130 and 298 from the Criminal Code, two circumstances must not be forgotten. First, legal liability for defamation and insult remains in the context of the Administrative Code, and, secondly, Article 319 has not been removed from the Criminal Code (insulting a representative of the authorities). Moreover, removing the definition of ‘insult’ from the Criminal Code opens the way to broaden the scope to apply Article 319, which deals with criticism of officials.
Future government policy
Nonetheless, Medvedev’s positive role in the development of the Internet in Russia needs to be assessed in the general context of his political influence. He refused to take part in the presidential elections and gave public support to Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, he issued statements in support of government policy on combating extremism, and he lacked any clear influence on the law enforcement system. In many respects these factors predetermined his inability - or lack of desire - to stop a possible return to active repression with regard to the Internet by the law enforcement lobby after his term in office ends. Dmitry Medvedev not only failed to embed his achievements in this sphere, but his public support for Vladimir Putin has made a return to a policy of repression probable.
Furthermore, the president, since he is in charge of Russia’s foreign policy, is responsible for the most recent international initiatives in the area of Internet regulation. In September 2011 Russia, jointly with China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan submitted to the UN General Secretary a draft International Code of Conduct for Information Security that proposed introducing restrictions on the transmission of information that ‘abets terrorism, separatism or extremism, and undermines the economic, political and social stability of other countries.’ The draft Code also proposed the creation of an international system of management for the Internet. When this initiative failed to receive international support, the Russian representatives demonstratively blocked the passage at the OSCE’s December summit of a Declaration on Fundamental Freedoms in the Digital Age.
For fairness’ sake it must be said that law enforcement lobbies in Western countries over the past year also issued calls for stronger controls over the Internet and for the blocking of Web accounts of Internet activists. In the first place, this was linked to the public disorders in England that, to a significant extent, were organized and coordinated through social media, and the terrorist attack in Norway. Characteristically, representatives of law enforcement agencies in Finland, on the contrary, stated that ‘the police cannot and must not hinder freedom of expression, even when this involves content approving the actions of terrorists’.
The role of social media in the protest movement
Despite significant pressure by the Russian authorities on Internet users, in 2011 RuNet (the Russian segment of the Internet) began to play a huge role in public and political life. For the first time the Internet became a truly significant factor in politics, generating a major real-world political figure - Aleksei Navalny. A striking illustration of this was the placard ‘The Hamster Draws Himself Up Tall’ that appeared at the huge rally for fair elections on 24 December in Moscow.
Incidentally, the first reaction of the authorities was not original – demands to close groups on social media and fresh pressure on activists (already in January 2012 it became known that FSB officers and the police department for combating extremism [Centre E] were persecuting the parents of Ilya Klishin, one of the founders of the groups in question).
Observers pointed out that the protests against electoral fraud in the December State Duma elections were able to become a truly mass movement thanks precisely to the Internet and social media - above all Facebook. It needs pointing out that the organizers and participants in the December mass events showed a preference for Facebook, despite the fact that in terms of numbers there are more Russian language users of Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte. Possibly this preference has been determined at least in part by the reputation of Vkontakte, which could not help but be influenced by the news that the FSB had demanded that opposition groups be blocked on the site. The statement by its founder, Pavel Durov, that he refused to do this only out of concern for his business interests cannot have helped matters: ‘If in those days we had begun to lose out to our competitors because of the absence from our site of the necessary means to conduct online mass repressions, we would have had to introduce them. And you can be certain that our repressions would have been the most widespread and the most bloody on the market.”
Another cause for concern has been the number of recent instances in which criminal charges have been brought against users of Vkontakte in connection with information posted on the site. At the same time, we have managed to discover only a small number of similar cases against users of Odnoklassniki, and not a single case against users of Facebook. It is too early to draw any final conclusions, but even now we can say that users of Russian social media are less protected from prosecution for their views.
Key events in 2011, directly concerning the criminal liability of Internet users, include the decriminalization of defamation and insult, and the passing by the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of a Guiding Explanation on extremism.
In 2011 criminal prosecution of Internet users for posting information on the Internet continued. Charges for defamation were laid against the lawyer Andrei Stolbunov, the bloggers Dmitry Pronin, from Moscow region, and Andrei Ermolenko, from Chelyabinsk, and against Sergei Mikhailov, a journalist from Gornoaltai. Furthermore, practically all the cases were related to publications critical of government at various levels, the results of investigations into corruption, and so on. Kemerovo journalist and blogger Dmitry Shipilov was charged with insulting that region’s governor.
Moreover, there have been a number of instances when users of social media have been charged under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles of the Criminal Code. The prosecution of Aleksandr Domrachev, a resident of Mari El, who was charged under Article 282 of the Criminal Code with inciting hatred against a social group – ‘police officers’ - has already been the subject of a report by Agora. Vladimir Masalovich, a resident of the Komi Republic, was sentenced to 8 months in an ‘open’ penal colony for content he posted on an Internet forum. This became one of the first instances of a prison sentence being given for Internet activity. The first sentence of this kind was given to Irek Murtazin in Kazan.
One positive outcome of the year has been the passing of a Guiding Explanation by the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on 28 June 2011 No. 11 ‘On Judicial Practice in Criminal Cases with regard to Crimes of an Extremist Nature’. The Guiding Explanation, in our view, is not ideal. The Supreme Court could have taken a clearer and more decisive position on the issue of the nature of social groups and the definition of public statements and appeals. However, the introduction of a degree of legal certainty is itself a positive factor. Evidently, the Supreme Court has given a signal, and six months after the publication of the Guiding Explanation, changes in law enforcement practice were already evident. The Court directly said that ‘criticism in the media of public officials (professional politicians), their actions and views must not be considered in all instances as actions intended to degrade the dignity of an individual or a group of people, since in relation to the indicated people the limits of permissible criticism are wider than in relation to private persons.’ The next step must be the laying down of legal guarantees for bloggers and other users of social media of the right to criticize.
Civil law sanctions remain an effective means of putting pressure on Internet activists: last year 11 such lawsuits were registered.
A new legal precedent was set by the decision of Moscow’s Liublino district court in the defamation lawsuit brought by businessman Vladlen Stepanov against Aleksei Navalny for posting on his LiveJournal page a link to a video containing information critical of the claimant. According to Navalny’s lawyer, Ramil Akhmetgaliev, ‘the court found that posting a link to a video amounted to distribution of that video. In other words any Internet user who, without copying a text or a video, simply indicates the source of the information, is from now on a distributor.’ This court ruling has now entered into force and may influence future judicial and law enforcement practice.
More positive was the ruling by Moscow’s Khamovniky district court which dismissed a defamationsuit brought by Vasily Yakemenko, head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, against the journalists and bloggers Oleg Kashin and Aleksandr Morozov. The court at the same time said that public officials may be subjected to criticism in relation to the conduct of their official duties.
The past year was marked by a series of high profile attacks by hackers against prominent Internet resources and the mail accounts of activists (http://openinform.ru/news/survey/09.12.2011/26053/). Altogether 31 cyber-attacks were recorded. At the same time, despite much publicized statements by President Medvedev, there were no effective investigations of these crimes, giving grounds to expect a repetition of similar attacks in the near future.
In 2011 there were two peaks to DDoS attacks: in March-April, when LiveJournal and Novaya gazeta’s website were attacked, and in December when the sites of many independent media and non-profits were brought down. The second series of attacks was without doubt related to the December State Duma elections and attempts to prevent the broadcasting of information about electoral fraud.
Impunity for those behind the attacks, and for those who carried them out, results from the utter inability of law enforcement agencies to conduct effective investigations. The December cyber-crimes only served to strengthen this impunity. Without doubt, objective difficulties exist. Effective investigation of crimes on the Internet that do not recognize state borders is impossible without close international cooperation. Having refused to ratify the Convention on Cybercrime, Russia has to a significant extent deprived itself of access to international mechanisms for investigating and preventing such crimes.
In addition to DDoS attacks, there also took place the demonstrative hacking of accounts in various social media websites, and the publication of business and personal correspondence of civic activists. Among the victims of these attacks were Aleksei Navalny, Grigory Melkonyants, deputy head of the independent election monitor Golos, and the writer Boris Akunin. Nothing is known about the investigation of these crimes, despite the fact that, for example, the supposed hacker of Navalny’s mail account gave an interview to the media.
All round pressure on Golos
The election monitor Golos has already been referred to in connection with the December cyber-attacks. However, the persecution of this organization, because of its work in combating electoral fraud, was not limited to the Internet. Pressure was applied simultaneously from a number of sources. Government-controlled media sought to discredit Golos; deputies of the State Duma brought official complaints against the organization, demanding that the Prosecutor General launch an investigation into its activities; the group was prosecuted under the Administrative Code for alleged violations of election regulations; customs officials detained Golos’ executive director at Moscow airport, seizing her laptop that contained personal and business data. There is no doubt that one of the main causes of these attacks was the work Golos did on the Internet project, ‘Map of Violations’. Indirect confirmation of this was the fact that one of the first DDoS attacks during the December elections was against the project’s website, and also against media websites that carried links to it (www.slon.ru, www.echo.msk.ru).
Administrative pressure and blocking access to Internet sites
Over the past year dozens of staff at educational institutions and libraries have been subjected to disciplinary measures for failing, in the view of inspectors, to ensure appropriate filtration of content on school and library computers. In the light of the lack of certainty in legislation and law enforcement practice in this area, teachers and librarians have no protection, not only from disciplinary measures, but also from prosecution under administrative and even criminal law.
On the one hand, the federal Ministry of Justice’s list of extremist materials has increased to such an extent that it has become more and more complex to use. On the other, in Russia the practice is flourishing of blocking access to whole sites which have been found to carry one or two texts or songs that a court has ruled to be extremist. Furthermore, the Ministry’s list of extremist materials contains both openly radical far-right Internet resources, as well as inoffensive blog platforms and dating websites.
The year 2011 for RuNet was a year of contradictions and discoveries. Among the doubtless plusses have been the decriminalization of defamation and insult, the passing of a Guiding Explanation by the Plenum of the Supreme Court that should restrict the prosecution of citizens for criticism of officials, and the strengthening of the role and significance of social media. No less certain minuses have been the renewal of murders and attacks on journalists and Internet activists, the series of hacker attacks that have gone unpunished, the further development of the practice of blocking access to ‘undesirable’ Internet sites, and the persecution of teachers and librarians for the lack of content filters. The upcoming presidential elections will decide the future paths to freedom, or lack of it, of the Internet in Russia.
Agora Human Rights Association