Russia’s parliament recently passed new legislation targeting individuals who insult the state online or spread fake news. President Vladimir Putin officially signed the bills into law last week.
Critics suspect the new laws will be used by the government to directly censor dissent from citizens.
Even before President Putin signed his approval of the legislation, the proposals received overwhelming support from the upper house.
The legislation describes fake news as unconfirmed news that challenges an individual’s life and/or their possessions or health, or encourages public danger or disorganization, or attempts to destroy key infrastructure.
CNN reports that under the new laws, people found liable for sharing “indecent” posts that portray disregard for the state, society and state symbols of the Russian Federation can be detained for up to 15 days for their offenses.
Legal entities and private citizens are all vulnerable. The latter will face small fines of between $45 and $75, while legal entities will face bigger fines of up to $15,000.
The seriousness of a case will apparently be used to determine how the new laws will be applied.
When the information is of high risk, blocking will be done immediately. On the other hand, in less severe situations, the perpetrators will be given the chance to delete the unverified or derogatory remarks.
The law will also compel internet companies to block access to material that is disruptive of public morality and human dignity.
Widespread Opposition & Protest
The tumultuous atmosphere created by protesters challenging the tight internet restrictions is seemingly ineffective in changing the legislators’ minds.
This is not the first time Russia is hitting global headlines for its internet laws.
In 2014, a relatively freewheeling bill was also passed but it did not receive the same level of uproar from critics because the laws were relatively tolerable.
Opponents have made their dissenting opinion known about the new legislation.
Russia’s human rights council as well as journalists, poets, activists and writers challenged the upper house to reject the law.
Another human rights group, Agora, anticipated that the efforts by the government to pull Russia out of the World Wide Web is a strategy to force big companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook to comply with the state if they wished to operate within its borders.
Rightly so, 75 percent of governmental requests that were made last year asking Google to delete information came from Russia.
Prominent cultural figures in the country also channeled their distress through an open letter terming the bills as unconstitutional, accusations that the council members at the lower house of parliament have squashed.
More droves of dissenters showed up at an anti-censorship rally in Moscow on March 10 to display their opposition to the new restrictions.
Are the Laws Necessary?
Citing a falsely inflated death toll after the tragic shopping mall fire in Siberia last year, Andrei Klishas—a lawmaker and a member of Putin’s political party—suggested that such incidences warrant the need to abate fake news.
With the dedication displayed by the two parliament houses, only one outcome looks likely.
Dmitry Peskov, a government spokesperson, told Reuters that because other European countries have fairly stricter laws to address the fake news issue, Russia has no choice but to follow suit.
From the proponents’ side, it is arguable that the law will guarantee the functioning of Russia’s internet service in the advent of external interference.
Will Russia be able to afford rolling out the laws though?
Russian digital rights NGO RosKomSvoboda, led by Arten Kozlyuk, says the project will be very costly, amounting to at least $250 million.
The NGO body speculates that the rollout will hurt telecom providers and, consequently, consumers.
More concerns arise with fear that Russia is attempting to go the Chinese route to censor internet freedom.
Creating a nationwide firewall similar to that of China implies that Russia will become autonomous to the rest of the world, a point that supporters of the bills claim will be more beneficial than harmful.
Will the New Legislation Be Effective?
Even though United States’ influence over the internet has reduced due to technological advancements, there is little doubt that it still controls core infrastructure in the World Wide Web.
Critics fear that the U.S. possess key systems that could still cut off enemy nations in case of a conflict.
Tech companies and encrypted messaging services like Telegram are already feeling the wrath of the Kremlin.
Telegram was banned last year, and the government followed up by launching an intensive blocking campaign after some users tried to circumvent the restrictions.
It is with little surprise that Russia is modeling internet censorship materials from China.
The latter has over the years coerced other nations to adopt is model by offering surveillance and censorship technology, availing immense training programs for diplomats, as well as compelling international firms to adhere to Chinese standards regardless of their countries of operation.
If these efforts by Beijing bear fruits, the democracy of the entire world will be threatened.
The Russian parliament has been quick to distance itself from comparisons between its draft law and China’s doctrine of internet sovereignty, arguing that the fundamental goal is to enhance internet security.
According to the government, the new legislation will merely institute a technical framework for mitigating unwarranted information and not introduce new barriers on citizens’ freedom.
There is already a group on information security that is carrying out a test run. Russians could witness an experimentation of the planned rollout in the near future.
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