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Russia - a global threat to Internet freedom

4 February 2013

Report on Internet Freedom in Russia in 2012 
by Agora Human Rights Association 

This report examines the restrictions on Internet freedom encountered by Russian Internet users in 2012. The conclusions drawn by the report’s authors are based on information obtained through regular monitoring conducted by Agora Human Rights Association of the situation since 2008. 

When working on the report we started from the premise that unrestricted access to an uncensored Internet is a fundamental human right, and that it is the state that bears responsibility for guaranteeing that each individual is free to share and receive information on the Web.

Last year was successful in terms of Internet access. The number of active users continued to grow: in the autumn of 2011 the daily reach of the Russian Internet was 40.7 million users, and by the end of 2012 this had increased to 46.8 million. Specifically, the largest growth in Internet users over the past year was recorded in small towns and amongst older people.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the cost of accessing the Internet continues to fall, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev commissioned the Ministry of Communications and several other government bodies to develop a series of measures by 1 April 2013 to reduce the cost of broadband Internet access for households.

The number of Russian domains has also increased dramatically: at the end of 2012 a total of 5,156,504 domain names were registered on the three Russian top-level domains: .ru, .su and .рф.

Another positive result from this year is that Russian courts are gradually becoming more open, which should be aided by the decree issued the Plenum of the Russian Supreme Court No. 35, dated 13 December 2012 ‘On openness and transparency of court proceedings and on access to information on court activities’ and the decree of the Plenum of the Russian Supreme Court of Arbitration No. 61, dated 8 October 2012 ‘On ensuring transparency in the arbitration process’.

A number of Russian Internet providers have begun to insist that the state supervisory bodies act within the law when using their powers to prevent extremism. For example, the Novosibirsk-based company Novotelecom refused to block access for its users to the film Innocence of Muslims until it had been ruled to be extremist by a court.

Overall, the phrase ‘for the first time’ appears frequently in this summary of the Russian Internet’s past year. For instance, in 2012 the daily reach of an Internet portal for the first time exceeded Channel One’s viewing figures. A Russian court, in a ruling on a dispute involving online information, for the first time cited the UN, OSCE and OAS Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet. The European Court of Human Rights, in its ruling in the Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey case, for the first time considered the issue of restricting the right to freely distribute information via the Internet.

On the other hand, the monitoring carried out by Agora revealed a significant increase in 2012 in the number of cases in which the Russian authorities restricted Internet freedom, in practically all areas - more users were prosecuted, access was blocked to more sites, and administrative pressure increased. Moreover, media representatives and prominent people, both online and offline, like Aleksei Navalny and Rustem Adagamov were subjected to harassment, as well as regular users and activists. For the first time, Internet activists began to flee the country in significant numbers. Large numbers of website owners also began to choose foreign jurisdictions - last year saw a rapid growth in demand for renting server equipment outside Russia.

The regulation of Internet behaviour in 2012 for the first time became a significant part of legislative practice, and started to set the political agenda. Russia, along with China and several Arab states, made the latest in a series of attempts to strengthen the concept of ‘Internet sovereignty’ at an international level, leaning heavily on ICANN and the Web’s existing system of self-regulation.

In total in 2012 we recorded 1197 (in 2011 there were 500) cases of restrictions on Internet freedom or harassment of users with this aim, which were divided up as follows:

Type of restriction                             2012                 2011
Murder                                           -                     
Violence                                         3                   10 
Proposals to regulate the Internet      49                    
Criminal prosecution                        103                  38 
Administrative pressure                    208                173 
Restriction of access                       609                231
Censorship                                     124                no data 
Cyber attacks                                  47                  31 
Civil lawsuits                                    26                  11 
Other                                             28                 no data 
Totals                                                  1197                    500

Comparing the distribution of violations across Russia’s regions in 2012 and 2011, it is clear that there has been an overall increase in the number of Russian regions in which the right to Internet access is being systematically restricted, rising from 35 in 2011 to 38 in 2012. In addition, the number of regions in which users experience serious pressure (marked in red on the Map of Violations) rose from 4 to 9. 

Moscow lost its status as the most dangerous city for users, passing this accolade to Stavropol region. It should also be noted that the number of cases of users’ rights being restricted in the capital has remained virtually unchanged, rising from 93 in 2011 to 98 in 2012. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg saw an almost three-fold reduction, from 38 to 14.

Violent crime against bloggers and Internet activists

Last year saw a reduction in the number of violent crimes against online journalists and bloggers. No murders were recorded in connection with Internet activity, and three journalists from online publications were assaulted (in 2011 there was 1 murder and 10 assaults). Vladimir Romensky, a correspondent with the TV channel Dozhd (Moscow), was hit in the face whilst filming events following the floods in Krymsk in July 2012. A journalist from the newspaper Listok (Altai Republic), Ruslan Makarov, also reported being beaten. He believes he was attacked in connection with articles he wrote that criticised the Republic’s administration. In addition, Agora’s monitoring recorded threats made by police officers to Mikhail Yakovlev, from the citizen journalism agency Metromsk, and a freelance reporter from the newspaper Svobodnaya Rech, Dmitry Pozechko. As a result, the police officer who threatened to “smash the camera” and “rip the head off” of the journalist was subjected to disciplinary action.

On the other hand, despite the reduction in cases of violence, information is not available on investigations into crimes committed in previous years. Between 2008 and 2011 there were three Internet-related murders and one attempted murder recorded. Only one of these resulted in a prosecution; the death of the owner of the website ‘Ingushetiya.Ru’, Magomed Evloev, was, according to the sentence, the result of a police officer’s careless handling of a gun. The police officer’s sentence and the conduct of the investigation did not satisfy the members of Evloev’s family, who are convinced that the death was wilfully inflicted for social and political motives. Evloev’s murderer was imprisoned, and was later shot dead in a café.

There has been no prosecution with regard to the attempted murder of journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin, despite then President Dmitry Medvedev assuming control over the investigation, and there were dozens of other assaults and beatings for which nobody has been brought to justice. “Summing up the two years of investigation into the attack on Oleg Kashin, I can say without any doubt that currently the main body responsible for the failure to reach a breakthrough in this crime is the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which is providing or, to be more precise, is failing to provide the necessary operational support for this case”, Ramil Akhmetgaliev, the victim’s lawyer, said on the second anniversary of the attack.[14]

Proposals to regulate the Internet 

In 2012, issues concerning legislation to regulate the Internet began to appear on the political agenda for the first time. Agora’s monitoring recorded a ten-fold (!) increase in proposals to regulate the Internet and tighten control over users (49 in 2012 compared to 5 in 2011). One of the most controversial legislative initiatives last year was Federal Law No 139-F3, dated 28 July 2012, commonly known as the law ‘on website blacklists’. This law, for the first time in Russian history, legalised the blocking of access to websites without requiring a court ruling. The legality of all previous extra-judicial access restriction had been very dubious, but since 1 November 2012 websites on which experts find pornographic images of minors, information about suicide techniques or information on preparing or taking drugs can be placed on a special register within a few days, and access to them blocked on the basis of a decision by the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecommunications, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor). 

However, there are no legal definitions of pornographic images of minors or information that incites suicide, and the expert review procedure is not at all transparent, creating the conditions for arbitrary and ungrounded restriction.

Soon after the passing of the law ‘on blacklists’, Yaroslav Nilov and Sergei Zheleznyak, members of the State Duma from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and United Russia respectively, raised the issue of introducing sanctions for the use of anonymisers and ways of getting round the restrictions. There is a very real possibility that this initiative will become law, considering that the adoption of a framework for new legislation on the Internet has been announced for the spring.

Nor did representatives of the law enforcement bodies hold back from discussing control over the Web. In March 2012 the First Deputy Director of the FSB, Sergei Smirnov, announced that Russia’s cyber security was being threatened by Western security services, which were using new technology to keep tension levels in Russian society high. At the same time, Rashid Nurgaliev, the Minister of Internal Affairs, announced plans to create centres dedicated to fighting extremism in online publications. A few days before these statements it was reported that the Presidential Administration had launched an open tender for an analysis of the demand by users of Facebook and Twitter for news-based, political and financial information. 

On 23 July 2012 amendments to the law ‘On advertising’ entered into force, outlawing the advertisement of alcohol-based products on the Internet. This had a considerable financial impact on independent Internet resources, as advertising is their main source of income.

The increase in the size of the fines for organising public protests also affected the distribution of information about the said protests, including via the Internet. Under the new law, protest organisers can be fined up to 100,000 roubles [approximately £2,000] if they share information about events amongst citizens before receiving government approval. This also includes posting messages on social networks, which are used very frequently when organising political protests.

On 28 July 2012 a provision providing for criminal liability for defamation was returned to the Russian Criminal Code (RCC). Moreover, the revision of Article 128.1 of the RCC makes it much easier to use this provision arbitrarily with the aim of pursuing those who criticise government policy. While revisions to Article 129 of the RCC officially reduced the punishment applicable, however the sanction of a fine of up to 5 million roubles (approximately £100,000) is actually more severe than the previous law which allowed for imprisonment. Previously, when prosecuted for defamation, especially as a first offence, the accused could, as a rule, expect a suspended sentence. Now the maximum possible fine allowed under the criminal law can be levelled under Section 5, Article 128.1 of the RCC, with no reduction in other negative legal consequences for the person convicted.

A draft law concerning the introduction of criminal liability for insulting the feelings of religious believers is currently being scrutinised by the State Duma. Given law-enforcement practice in cases related to criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, the report’s authors believe that, should this law enter into force, it will be used as another way of applying pressure on Internet activists.

In October 2012 Duma members from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) revived the idea of forcing social network users to enter their passport details when registering on these websites.

Criminal prosecution 

2012 saw a considerable increase in the number of criminal cases brought in relation to materials published on the Internet - a total of 103 (there were 38 in 2011). The vast majority of these were cases involving incitement of hatred (Article 282 of the RCC) or inciting extremist activity (Article 280 of the RCC). 

Specifically, of these prosecutions for items published on social networks, 50 cases involved users of VKontakte, 3 featured users of Odnoklassniki, and 2 concerned the Moi Mir network, owned by No prosecutions were recorded against Facebook users. Meanwhile, according to TNS web index data there is not such a marked difference in the number of users of these four social networks - VKontakte has approximately 29 million users, Odnoklassniki has 23 million, Moi Mir has 19 million and Facebook has 12 million.

There were also cases of prosecution for insulting government representatives. For example, blogger Dmitry Shipilov was sentenced to 11 months of correctional labour for his brusque article addressed to the Governor of the Kemerovo region, Aman Tuleev.

Faced with the threat of prosecution and internment in a psychiatric ward, the chair of the Karelia Youth Human Rights Group Maksim Efimov was forced to flee Russia. An accusation of insulting the feelings of Orthodox believers was filed against him in his absence for his critical article entitled 'Karelia is tired of priests', which described the close cooperation between the Karelian regional government and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. Currently, Efimov has been granted political asylum in Estonia, and the criminal case against him remains under investigation by the Karelian Investigative Committee. 

Another journalist forced to leave Russia was Jenny Kurpen, as was the activist and blogger Mikhail Maglov. Both feared prosecution for their online and civil activism.

Administrative pressure 

In 2012, there were 208 cases of users, site administrators and service providers being subjected to administrative sanctions or being issued with warnings and cautions by the public prosecution or regional branches of Roskomnadzor (in 2011 there were 173). The situation has not changed greatly since last year.

On 31 July 2012 Roskomnadzor issued a warning to the editors of the newspaper Russkiy Reporter for an article about a drug den. In an official document, Roskomnadzor stressed in particular the requirement to delete this article from the publication’s website. Threatened with losing its press accreditation certificate, the paper was forced to remove the disputed article.

A Kemerovo-based Internet service provider was fined 800,000 roubles (approximately £16,000) because films were discovered on its local network which experts considered to advocate drug use. The films in question included, for example, the Cannes-nominated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In the autumn of 2012 Yuliya Bashinova, a journalist at the Internet publication, was summoned for questioning by the Investigative Committee to explain why she signed a petition on the website of Amnesty International in support of human rights defender Igor Kalyapin. It has been reported that investigators have held talks with citizens who signed the petition in several Russian cities.

There was also an intriguing case in which the Khabarovsk regional branch of Roskomnadzor won a case in which a court imposed sanctions under administrative law on the Internet publication RIA AmurPRESS for violating territorial restrictions on the distribution of its publications.

Restriction of access and censorship 

The authorities were extremely active last year in blocking access to web pages. A total of 608 decisions were made to block access to sites, either through court rulings or on a ‘voluntary’ basis by service providers (in 2011 the number was 231).

The majority of restrictions were imposed on the basis that the sites contained information of an ‘extremist nature’, citizens’ personal data, online gambling or drug-related information. Nevertheless, the grounds provided for blocking many of the sites were extremely dubious.

In February 2012 the domain name registrar Masterhost discontinued its delegation of the Andrei Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice’s domain on the grounds of a report by the head of the directorate of the Moscow branch of the Federal Service for Drug Control, stating that “the office received information that the domain [...] contained materials that propagandised (advertised) the use of narcotics.” In reality, the Foundation’s site contained official documents on replacement therapy from the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In August 2012 Perm City Court forced a service provider to prevent its subscribers from accessing a free listings site, stating that searching for “buy marijuana in Perm” using the Yandex search engine provided a link to that website. According to a representative from the company that ran the site, somebody had indeed placed an advertisement selling a smoking blend on the site. However, the government bodies had not contacted the site owner, and instead went straight to court. When the moderator discovered the advertisement and deleted it, it was already too late - the ruling which forced the service provider to block access to the site by IP address had already taken legal effect.

As well as the restrictions to access mentioned above, 1206 entries were made on the Unified Register at the site, which imply either the deletion of the pages involved from the corresponding sites, or the complete blocking of access to these sites.

The entry into force of the law ‘on blacklists’ caused a storm of protests from the Internet community, and blocking of access to the popular sites, and was accompanied by a wave of indignation. The Unified Register of domain names, website page locators and network addresses that allow identification of websites on the Internet containing information prohibited for distribution in the Russian Federation is referred to with the simple hashtag #govnoreestr (‘shit register’). Unfortunately, however, there has not been a single court case to enable an appeal to be lodged against the clearly illegal deletion of pages that have been included on the register. All site owners have preferred to delete the disputed information which, as proven by the subsequent experience of, is no defence against a stream of additional claims.

In the past year we also recorded 124 demands to delete information or to extra-judicially block access to a site or a single page. This includes court rulings that news stories are extremist, demands from Roskomnadzor to delete user comments from a website, and other similar restrictions.

Cyber attacks 

2012 saw a persistently high level of danger of cyber attacks on Internet sites and hacking into users’ accounts, with a total of 47 cases (in 2011 there were 31). The consistent sabotage by government bodies of investigations into these crimes in recent years is leading to more and more frequent DDoS attacks and hacking of email accounts. Typically, one can only expect an attack to be investigated if it was carried out against a state body or state-owned company. Instances of two well-known DDoS attacks for which criminal cases did reach the courts were the attacks on the website of the airline Aeroflot in 2010 and on the sites of the President and Russian government in May 2012.

During 2012 the sites,, Live Journal,,, the site of the Moscow branch of the United Russia party, the site of the news agency Tulskie Novosti, the site of the radio station Echo of Moscow in St. Petersburg,, and many others were subjected to attacks.

At the 3rd International Conference of the Eurasia Network Operators Group (ENOG-3), which took place in May 2012 in Odessa (Ukraine), the following statistic was noted concerning DDoS attacks on the Russian Internet: 2,500 attacks were recorded in 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, with an average intensity of 1.6 Mpps and an average duration of over 6 hours. This is twice as high as the figure for the same period worldwide. The most powerful DDoS attack in Russia, 56 Gbit/s, took place in summer 2011. The longest continued unabated for 20 days. One fifth of DDoS attacks in Russia are over 1 Gbit/s.

A botnet of 182,000 computers was used in Russia in May 2012 to attack the TV channel Dozhd. A similar scale of attack had only previously been witnessed in December 2011 on the day of elections for the State Duma and during the mass anti-government protests that followed, when a botnet made up of 200,000 computers attacked On 12 June 2012, a single botnet made up of 133,000 computers for the first time attacked four online media outlets - the websites of Novaya Gazeta, the radio station Echo of Moscow, and the TV station Dozhd.

There is no doubt but that these and many other cyber attacks were initiated in one way or another by the authorities, with the political aim of restricting free access to information of social importance to citizens.

It is clear that hackers are attacking government sites more frequently than they did last year. Presumably President Vladimir Putin signed Decree No. 31с ‘On the formation of a state system for detecting, preventing and mitigating the effects of computer attacks on the information resources of the Russian Federation’ on 15 January with this in mind. Under this decree, the FSB has been vested with the task of developing a method for preventing and investigating attacks by hackers on Russia’s Internet resources, and with promoting international cooperation in the fight against cyber crime.

However, the termination of cooperation between Russia and the USA in law enforcement matters announced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spells the demise of any potential for investigating the majority of cyber crimes.

Given recent trends in government policy concerning the Internet, the report’s authors have no reason to suppose that following the signing of Decree No. 31c all attacks on independent social and political sites will be investigated. Nevertheless, it will provide additional opportunities to demand that the government fulfils its duties to protect the constitutional rights of citizens.


2012 was a watershed year for the Russian Internet. The Internet moved rapidly away from the margins of social and political life, and demonstrated its extremely wide-ranging potential for use by Russian activists to organise themselves. In so doing, it also attracted the close attention of the authorities. For the first time, the Russian state has started to see the Internet as the principal threat to its prosperity and stability.

This is proven both by the increase in the number of restrictions and the ten-fold growth in the number of proposals to regulate the Internet, not one of which contained a guarantee of freedom, but instead were directed exclusively at tightening control and liability and at introducing new forms of censorship.

We are sure that this trend will continue in 2013, and that cases directly related to the Internet will for the first time begin to set the agenda in the field of human rights and liberties. The next fight for the freedom of the Russian Internet is set for the spring, when the law ‘On the Internet’ is scheduled for discussion in the State Duma.

That said, at the moment no organisations that represent the Russian Internet community are speaking out in a tough and principled manner in defence of the freedom to use and distribute information on the Web. Neither the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC), nor the Coordination Centre for TLD RU, RU-CENTER, or other domain name registrars, nor the leading Internet services and business such as VKontakte, and Yandex are offering a public, principled objection to the categorically and ostensibly close-minded policy of reducing Internet freedom in Russia.

The ‘head in the sand’ strategy of Internet businesses and Internet communities can be explained, in our view, by their dependence, both direct (via the requirement to obtain numerous licenses for functioning in the communications sector, including some issued by the FSB) and indirect (via the risk of administrative pressure on businesses), on the Russian authorities.

Another trend witnessed is that Russia has started to operate in the international arena. Having gone through the fiasco in 2011 of trying to pass the International Code of Conduct for Information Security at the UN, actually a set of measures to strengthen the role of the state over national segments of the Web, Russia made a fresh attempt at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, held in Dubai in December 2012. The Russian and Chinese initiatives to introduce ‘Internet sovereignty’ and give states the right to hand out network addresses were vetoed by the majority of countries. However, it is clear that the Russian authorities are unlikely to cease their attempts to secure international sanction for strengthening their control over the Russian Internet.

In this regard, Russia is a global threat to a free and open Internet, since it is much more interested than China in passing international laws to regulate the Web. China has solved its internal political problems by building the Great Firewall of China and forcing the major market players like Google to play by its rules. At the same time, for Russia this provides a self-evident means to justify the constantly increasing pressure placed on Internet users and activists within the country.

In 2012 it became clear that Russia’s domestic policy in this field follows logically from foreign policy aspirations to leadership of the ‘conservative camp’, and thus we shall undoubtedly hear more of proposals to secure international cyber security in the near future.

Damir Gainutdinov, PhD (law)
Legal analyst, Agora Human Rights Association 

Pavel Chikov, PhD (law)
Chair of the Agora Human Rights Association