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Cybersecurity & Standards, Free Expression

Russia Must Reject Measures to Restrict Bloggers’ Speech

The lower house of the Russian legislature has voted in favor of new legal provisions that would put significant restrictions on popular bloggers and the content they produce. On April 22, the State Duma approved amendments to counter-terror laws that would extend repressive measures currently applied to mass media onto bloggers who draw more than 3,000 daily visitors. CDT urges Russia to reject the proposed amendments and respect privacy and free expression rights of Internet users.

CDT is concerned that the proposed amendments will prevent popular bloggers from blogging anonymously or under pseudonyms. Anonymity can empower Internet users to speak freely without fear of reprisal. With new, strict requirements to reveal their real names to the public – and the Russian government – bloggers may hesitate to speak their minds, particularly when criticizing the government. Under the amendments, popular bloggers would need to register with the Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media oversight body. They would also need to display their family name, initials, and contact information on their website. Failure to comply could result in fines. Legal entities with repeat offenses could also have their site suspended for up to a month.

The amendments also contain significant limitations on the content of online speech. According to Human Rights Watch, bloggers would face requirements currently placed on mass media, including “verifying information for accuracy, indicating the minimal age for users, protecting information pertaining to people’s privacy, and being subject to restrictions on propaganda in support of electoral candidates.” In addition to the fact that bloggers may face punishment for wholly legitimate speech, there is a significant risk that bloggers will self-censor out of fear that they may face future prosecution for the information and commentary they publish. Further, bloggers may be held responsible for third-party comments, which may cause bloggers to pre-emptively restrict such content. (For a full discussion of intermediary liability and human rights, go here.)

The amendments also include a data retention mandate: Blogging and social media services would be required to keep user data for six months from the time data is generated. CDT opposes data retention mandates; requiring operators to create and maintain highly detailed records of users’ identifying information and communication activity violates the right to privacy, suppresses legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression, and subverts the presumption of innocence. Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that the European Union’s much-criticized Data Retention Directive is invalid because it infringes on the rights to privacy and data protection. Russia should not introduce new mandates that echo the widely spurned law.

It is also significant that the amendments use vague terminology that may be open to overbroad interpretation. For example, the word “blogger” is poorly defined and may cover a wide range of online commentators, from people who run their own websites to popular users of social media platforms. How the government will apply such broad language can be difficult for users to predict, increasing the potential for abuse by government officials and further chilling the use and development of platforms for speech.

CDT joins Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists in urging Russia to respect bloggers’ human rights and keep these proposed measures from becoming law.