25 April 2012
It has been noted many times that the Russian authorities are doing their utmost to strengthen their influence over the World Wide Web, recognising its importance and role as a catalyst for self determination amongst ordinary citizens. However, due to their poor understanding of the technical nature of the Internet, and a lack of any systemic approach, their specific initiatives have been tended to be chaotic. Nevertheless, a new trend in the regulation of the Russian sector of the World Wide Web is becoming increasingly perceptible.
Perhaps the best expression to describe it is: “Get someone else to do the dirty work for you”. Regulation and control is being carried out by intermediaries rather than through direct intervention and decisions by government bodies. The constraints employed are various and depend on which state structure is working in “tandem” with these intermediaries: the Ministry of Communications uses shady “self-regulating organisations”, the Federal Financial Monitoring Agency (Rosfinmonitoring) uses the banks, and the security services operate through internet providers, domain registration organisations and social networking site administrators. This collaboration is not always undertaken willingly or even consciously, very often it simply suffices to create conditions under which the intermediary is forced to act in a certain way.
Several months ago representatives from the League for a Safe Internet, (which according to its own site is the largest and most powerful organisation in Russia fighting against harmful Internet content), announced the development of amendments to the Federal Laws “On Communications” and “On information, information technology and data security”. The amendments propose the creation of “blacklists” of Internet resources, which hosting providers and communication service operators will be obliged to block.
At present a court ruling is needed to do this, although often agreement is reached to close access to certain sites simply on the basis of a request from the Prosecutor's Office (the lawfulness of this practice is extremely doubtful).
Apart from the fact that the adoption of these amendments will de facto legalise the blocking of sites without a court ruling, there are serious questions about the procedure used by these unspecified experts when compiling these lists. Igor Shchegolov, the Minister of Communications, announced that the compilation of these lists should be dealt with by a self-regulating organisation, stressing moreover the pre-eminent role being played by the League for a Safe Internet. We suspect that this League, which is working closely with the government, state companies, the Russian Orthodox Church and the “K” [computer crime] directorate at the Ministry of the Interior, and which is creating cyber-guardians to monitor “undesirable” content on the Web while actively lobbying for the introduction of non-judicial methods of restricting access to the Internet, could be the authorities' most convenient instrument for controlling the Internet. At the same time, this will provide a facade of “public” participation and a scientific approach to this matter by calling upon so-called “experts”.
It is indicative that the “forbidden” list is constantly growing - it now no longer just includes pornography and paedophilia but also lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, suicide, “non-traditional” religions, anarchism and so on and so forth.
Social Networking Sites
The administrators of some social networking sites are taking a pro-active role in restricting freedom of expression. Thus, in February of this year reports emerged that the administration of the VKontakte social networking site were expelling groups dedicated to the issue of suicide. In fact, the site's rules stipulate that administrators have the right to block groups that contravene “acknowledged ethical norms and moral principles, including those that are considered such in the opinion of the Site's Administration”. The situation is practically the same with the regulations for the registration of domains. Since 18 March this year, VKontakte has blocked a group dedicated to protesting against the NTV Television Channel. At the time VKontakte’s press office reported that the group had allegedly been blocked as a result of attempts to hack into it. Previously, in July 2011 Ekho Moskvy had reported that VKontakte's administration had blocked a Belarus opposition group called “Revolution via social networking sites” for breaking the site's rules.
There are other service providers that have also failed to remain neutral. In November 2011, the administrators of the Moi Mir social networking site closed a community called “Russian language in Tatarstan's schools”, which had around 15,000 members actively discussing the problem of teaching Russian in Tatarstan's schools. Experts at the time suspected that the leadership of the Republic, who were unhappy with this group's activities, “were able to come to an agreement” with the site's owners.
In all the above listed cases, the state formally remains out of the picture - the closure of undesirable Internet communities is taking place at the initiative of the sites' administrators who cite their own user agreements. Nevertheless, the topics covered by these closed communities, which have earned the displeasure of high ranking government officials, suggest that it is precisely the authorities that want to prevent the widespread discussion of sensitive issues.
The increase in Internet user numbers has been accompanied by an increase in the number of criminal cases brought with regards publications on social networking sites. Of a total of 38 Internet criminal cases monitored by AGORA in 2011, 32 were brought in connection with VKontakte users, there was one case involving an Odnoklassniki user (an old school networking site), and no cases involving material published on Facebook or Google+. Even taking into account the relative size of their audiences (according to ComScore's figures VKontakte has 34.3 million users, Odnoklassniki has 27 million and Facebook has 9.3 million), this proportion testifies to the active collaboration between the management of VKontakte and the law enforcement agencies.
One of the most vivid illustrations of the implementation of this strategy to “get other people to do your dirty work for you” is the use of the registration rules in the .RU and .РФ sectors of the Internet, which are ratified by the Coordination Centre of the National Internet Domain Network (a non-profit organisation which is the main Russian regulator for the registration of domain names on the Russian Internet). In November 2011, new rules were adopted by this organisation, of which clause 5.5 determines that the delegation of a domain name may be terminated by the registrar on the basis of a written decision from the head of a body carrying out operational investigative activities.
It is worth noting that under the previous version of the rules the registrar could only put the delegation on hold on the basis of a substantiated decision of a body carrying out investigative operations, and then only in cases established by the law. Moreover, the blocking of a site could be overturned by a court ruling. Now, everything is much simpler. There does not need to be any substantiation and there are no demands to check that the decision is in accordance with the law.
One of the first victims of these new rules was the Andrey Rylkov Health Protection and Social Justice Foundation, which campaigns in favour of humanising Russia's drug policy and provides help to drug addicts. The Rylkov Foundation's website was blocked at the beginning of March this year on the grounds of a representation made by the head of the Moscow Directorate of the Federal Drug Control Agency. This drug enforcement officer referred only to the fact that he had “received information that the domain ... has materials posted by an unknown person promoting (advertising) the use of narcotic substances.” Precisely which materials elicited his displeasure and why he considered the dissemination of information regarding access to medical treatment, including replacement therapy programmes approved by the UN and the World Health Organisation, not to mention the human right to promote drug use, was not discussed by anyone.
The company RU-CENTER takes a more active position. It is one of the largest Russian domain registration organisations in the .ru, .com, .net and .org zones, and likewise in Russian third level geo domains such as .msk.ru and .spb.ru.
The regulations for the registration of third level domains consist of an obligatory annex to the service provision agreement, which allows the company to immediately terminate the delegation of a domain in the event of the dissemination of pornographic materials, exhortations to violence, the conduct of extremist activities, the overthrow of the authorities and so forth, and likewise activities that contravene the public interest or the principles of humanity and morality, or offend human dignity or religious convictions, and so on. Moreover, the domain registration organisation is entitled to independently appraise the activities of the user in respect of legal violations, including instances when the definition of these activities is not backed up by regulatory acts. In other words, RU-CENTER has endowed itself with the right to define what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is immoral.
The utilisation in the regulations of extraordinarily imprecise definitions such as “activities that contravene human interests”, “principles of humanity and morality”, and likewise open-ended lists of unacceptable activities, allow the registration company to block any resource at any moment, thus creating conditions for the implementation of censorship that can be as draconian as you like. At the same time, the blocking of a domain on the initiative of the registration organisation, which is permitted by regulation 1/15, would appear to an outside observer to be a run of the mill “dispute between two business entities” without any formal participation on the part of the state at all.
It is no coincidence that soon after the publication of the rules that the editorial board of Ekho Moskvy announced that it was looking into the possibility of “moving” to a new web address.
Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the registrar faces any liability for refusing to block a domain on the basis of an unsubstantiated request which is not backed by a court ruling. In all likelihood what we are talking about here is a system intended to rely on the desire of the registrar to play safe and cooperate in a friendly manner with the authorities.
In February of this year, Rosfinmonitoring introduced an amendment to its own Recommendations on the Development of Criteria for the Diagnosis and Definition of Unusual Transactions (Order No.43 of 14 February 2012). Henceforth, financial organisations are invited to investigate internet payments with regions “with a high risk of terrorism or extremism, inter-ethnic conflicts, armed hostilities and military operations” as a sign of an unusual transaction that might be aimed at financing terrorism.
It would appear that the banks, that traditionally regard recommendations from Rosfinmonitoring and the Central Bank as direct instructions on how to act, have been invited to appraise the degree of transactional risk. It is evident that, wary of having their licenses revoked, the banks will choose to err on the side of caution and interpret this definition as widely as possible. This means that a shopper, making a purchase through a standard foreign Internet store, risks ending up being suspected of financing terrorism and extremism. All the operations of this kind will be placed under special supervision, and what is more the client will not even know about it.
Also in the firing line are users of various electronic commerce services such as Yandex.dengi [Yandex.money], which have become a popular means of collecting donations for civic activism. For example, in connection with the publication of the personal details of donors to the RosPil project, Yandex reported that the FSB had expressed an interest in these particulars and had requested these details from the company.
Content Filters for Schools and Libraries
In 2008, a bundle of programmes was installed in all Russian schools to ensure the filtration of information resources that “are not compatible with educational objectives and the development of students”. Ever since then, the heads of educational establishments have regularly been held to account for failing to ensure the filtration of accessible Internet resources.
Data produced by the SOVA Research and Analysis Centre testifies to dozens of cases of penalties being applied to librarians for the lack of filters on library computers.
In the spring of this year there emerged reports that the Moscow Region Duma was looking into the issue of obliging Internet cafe owners to install content filter systems.
In the main, these claims against organisations providing public access to the Net proceed from the provisions of Article 12 of the Federal Law “On countermeasures against extremist activities”, which forbids the use of public communications networks for the purposes of extremism.
More detailed and better substantiated grounds do not exist for the requirements made of schools, libraries, Internet cafes and other organisations providing computer access to the Internet. In contrast, there exists in International law the principle that Internet content filtration systems which are not controlled by the end user are a form of presumptive censorship and cannot be justified because they are a restriction of the freedom of expression.
The traditional direct methods of supervision and control are too fraught with the risk of reputational damage. Therefore, the authorities have been obliged to seek for new approaches in order to continue the prosecution of users and the oversight of web activities that do not have official sanction. At the same time, the authorities’ determination to divest responsibility for this function onto service providers, registration bodies, schools, libraries and certain other “non-state” organisations is becoming increasingly evident. As a result, an increasing number of instances of restriction of Internet freedom are based not on direct administrative measures taken by state bodies and officials, but derive from legal disputes in civil law and actions taken by the above-listed “intermediaries”, behind whose backs the presence of the state functionary can always be felt.
Legal analyst, Agora Human Rights Association; Candidate of Legal Sciences
Chair, Agora Human Rights Association; Candidate of Legal Sciences
 The League's supervisory committee contains representatives from the FSB, the Ministry of the Interior, Roskomnadzor, the State Duma, the Federation Council and communications operators.
 “New rules for closing web sites come back to haunt Ekho Moskvy" // http://www.izvestia.ru/news/516401
 The Joint Declaration on the Freedom of Expression and the Internet (adopted on 1 June 2011 by the Special Rapporteurs to the UN, the Organisation of American States, the African Union and by the Representative of the OSCE on Freedom of the Media).