(Moscow) – Two new laws in Russia jeopardize the privacy and security of internet users and aim to further control Russians’ freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.
The legislation, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on July 30, 2017, bans anonymous use of online messenger applications and prohibits the use of software to allow users to circumvent internet censorship. The new laws are part of Russia’s widespread crackdown on online expression, in violation of human rights law and democratic safeguards.
“Anonymity protects the rights of internet users and freedom of expression online,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These laws negatively affect the ability of tens of millions of Russians to freely access and exchange information online.”
Law № 276-FZ, which is scheduled to come into force in November, prohibits owners of virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers from providing access to websites banned in Russia. The law authorizes Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal executive authority responsible for overseeing online and media content, to block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. It also authorizes Russia’s law enforcement agencies, including the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, to identify violators, and tasks Roskomnadzor with creating a special registry of online resources and services prohibited in Russia.
VPNs are often used by journalists, human rights activists, students, and others to protect the privacy and security of their online activity, as well as to circumvent Internet censorship.
Irina Borogan, an investigative journalist and expert on internet freedom in Russia, told Human Rights Watch that the law is overly intrusive and creates unjustified obstacles to access to information. Russia’s internet ombudsman, Dmitry Marinichev, in a media interview called the new legislation “madness,” potentially amounting to “persecution of citizens in their own country.”
The second law № 241-FZ, signed on July 30, prohibits companies registered in Russia as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing unidentified users. The law requires those companies to identify their users by their cell phone numbers, and tasks the government with elaborating the identification procedure. Under the law, mobile applications that fail to comply with requirements to restrict anonymous accounts will be blocked in Russia. The law is scheduled to come into force in January 2018.
Since 2014, Russian authorities have been putting increasing pressure on online messaging applications to comply with other new laws. In particular, these include a 2015 law that requires operators and service providers to store and process personal data of Russian citizens on servers located inside Russia, and a 2014 “bloggers’ law” that introduced the concept of “organizers of information dissemination” – any person or entity that provides service that enables its users to communicate with each other, including social media platforms and online messenger applications – and required them to register with Roskomnadzor.
In a positive move, law No.276-FZ annulled another provision of the 2014 law that had required bloggers with more than 3,000 unique visits per day to register in a special registry and imposed the same legal constraints and responsibilities on bloggers as on mass media outlets, without providing the same protections.
In April, Roskomnadzor blocked three online messaging apps – BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), LINE, and Imo.im – and a video chat, Vchat, for failing to share with the authorities data about their users, as well as to provide Roskomnadzor with information necessary to register the messengers as “organizers of information dissemination.”
In May, the authorities also blocked the Chinese messaging application WeChat, but lifted the restrictions after the company provided the information. Also in May, Roskomnadzor ordered the chat application Telegram, with six million users in Russia, to provide information for the registry of “organizers of information dissemination.” In June, Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, agreed to provide the required information, but stated that the messenger would not share confidential user data with the authorities.
A July 2017 Human Rights Watch report documents how in recent years the Russian government established tighter control over the internet through a raft of laws that provide government agencies with very wide powers to carry out unchecked surveillance and to censor information online. Human Rights Watch reported that the authorities have unjustifiably blocked thousands of websites and prosecuted dozens of internet users for expressing their views on “sensitive” topics, including LGBT issues, Russia’s intervention in Syria, and the armed conflict in Ukraine.
“These laws are yet another step by the authorities to shrink the online space in Russia because they fear it is a platform for critical expression,” Gorbunova said. “The laws unjustifiably restrict access to information and jeopardize Russia’s internet users’ confidential information and communications.”