Russia takes aim at online freedom

Written by Feleti Kesharenko, CNN Moscow, Russia Seeking to increase control over access to Russian state media, the government has proposed sweeping new laws that would not only define what media is online, but…

Russia takes aim at online freedom

Written by Feleti Kesharenko, CNN Moscow, Russia

Seeking to increase control over access to Russian state media, the government has proposed sweeping new laws that would not only define what media is online, but would also be able to censor specific content.

The draft laws, set to be presented in parliament this week, could be a step towards restoring censorship, which was largely lifted with the advent of the Internet. The measures will also introduce criminal charges to protect children from “harmful information.”

The measures would also require Russian companies such as media conglomerates and search engines to allow the government to block foreign sites, in an effort to limit foreign influence in the country.

The government announced plans to close more than 8,000 Internet sites in July 2017, which sparked outcry from civil rights groups, online activists and international organizations.

A pro-Kremlin lawmaker says he will introduce a draft law that would impose fines for criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. © AFP/Getty Images

But despite the recent leaks from US intelligence agencies revealing the extensive Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, the Kremlin continues to insist that the Internet has no use for censorship.

Numerous issues — such as counterterrorism and the interference of foreign tech companies in the country’s elections — will likely bolster the Russian government’s crackdown on the Internet, experts and academics say.

The new laws — also known as the “Internet Surveillance State’s Protection for Children” bill — would establish a new state information service with the mandate to control the Internet and block access to information it deems harmful.

It would also establish strict standards for what kind of content can be published online — whether it be the removal of false news, spreading obscene content or being a source of bad hygiene.

Oleg Sizov, a research analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, says it’s clear that the Kremlin wants to crack down on freedom of speech online.

“As far as the quality of the Internet is concerned, it’s only very modern areas where free, appropriate, helpful information is easily accessible,” he said.

“Compared to other countries, it’s not very positive that not only to access information, but also to access something good about Russia, we should need to go through so many steps.”

Slowing down the flow of information may help strengthen Putin’s authority in the wake of US intelligence agencies’ allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election.

‘I’m not opposed to go after bad information’

Instead of detaining online activists and blocking access to sites, the government says it will focus on limiting the dissemination of classified information, or information which could be used to undermine national interests.

But activist group Yevgenia Albats believes that it is not only specific sites that are the problem, but disinformation as a whole.

“When information is political in nature, why would I want to keep the bad information out of the public? I have a right to seek out information, but when you look at the whole spectrum — it has two sides,” she said.

Albats wants to see the pro-Kremlin justice minister, Alexander Zharov, prosecuted for these allegations.

The draft bill, in which Zharov appears to be one of the prime co-authors, will extend to four years the time for which authorities can request information about Russian citizens from digital companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.

So far, 11 non-Russian firms have pulled out of the country as a result of the draft’s technical requirements.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted that social media companies are aware of Russia’s efforts to fight terror, and says it’s up to the companies to decide if they want to do business in the country.

According to Sizov, the companies may face several complaints from Russia’s intelligence services over content.

Since Russia’s information services are not supposed to intervene in the content users receive, they will most likely use the same methods as social media companies to exercise control over users, Sizov said.

“We are talking about the state-funded media,” he said. “It’s like a censor.”

In a bid to fight the rumors and surveillance fears, Russian bloggers have been banned from building credible citizen platforms.

Albats said information about the country’s actions, media censorship and censorship abroad have been pushed out of the public sphere.

“Almost all of the information about Russian affairs goes through certain channels, and there is very little information in the public sphere that is produced by Russians,” she said.

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