MOSCOW, July 5 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – The morbidly cute educational cartoon “Dumb Ways to Die,” about do’s and don’ts when using public transportation, has won critical acclaim at international ad festivals. But in Russia, it was banned as promotion of suicide.
Over the past nine months, Russia has passed two bills regulating domestic Internet use, including an extrajudicial blacklist for websites and a radical anti-piracy law, which opponents call the “Russian SOPA” after its rejected US analogue. That’s two more bills than over the previous 18 years.
The burst of legislative activity has prompted fears that the Kremlin aims to censor the Internet for political reasons, but experts interviewed by RIA Novosti see it as something more complex: the zeal of conservative, populist lawmakers, dovetailing – in the case of the piracy law – with the efforts of film and TV lobbyists whose business agenda fits the broader prohibitive trend in state policy.
As for the Kremlin, Internet aficionados say, it has enough tools for suppressing political dissent online without the new regulations.
Purging the Pirates
The new anti-piracy law was fast-tracked by parliament in less than three weeks and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
The legislation – drafted by four lawmakers, all of them performers and film directors, who did not consult Internet industry representatives – aims to curb film piracy, but places much of the responsibility on middlemen rather than the pirates themselves.
It will allow bans and/or lawsuits to be initiated against almost any website, including online media and search engines, opening the doors to unfair harassment, according to a joint statement issued last week by 10 members of the Russian Internet industry’s main lobby group, the Russian Association of Electronic Communications (RAEC), including Google Russia, and Google’s major Russian business rival, search engine Yandex (not a RAEC member).
The law bears some similarity to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, a US law that allows copyright holders to request that websites and search engines remove user-posted content believed to infringe copyright.
However, the Russian law differs markedly in that copyright holders do not have to contact the uploader; they can go straight to court, which will then order the contested content removed – without ruling on its legality. If the host does not get the uploader to comply within 24 hours, a state watchdog can block the offending webpage or website by IP address – which is often shared by dozens or hundreds of unrelated websites, all of which will effectively fall under the ban.
The Russian bill also allows copyright holders to target any “informational intermediaries” involved in disseminating contested content. That means a search engine, blog or news website can face bans because someone posted a link to a pirated movie in its comments section.
“It’s probably the worst Internet law ever passed,” Anton Nossik, a veteran Internet entrepreneur, wrote in his blog on Snob.ru.
The Film Lobby
Besides lawmakers, the main driving force behind the anti-piracy law seems to be those connected with Russia’s ailing film business.
“It's the work of the copyright-holder lobby,” Sergei Grebennikov, RAEC’s deputy director, said of the new legislation, pointing to major television channels as backers.
Alexei Pimanov, a host for Channel One, Russia’s most-watched channel, said on his show in late June that he had co-drafted the bill to help Russia’s film industry.
The number of Russians watching films on television went down from 79 percent in 2004 to 50 percent in May, according to independent pollster Levada Center.
The bill's four official co-authors would not comment on the matter, a representative for one of them told RIA Novosti.
The plight of Russia’s film industry has long been a topic of discussion, and piracy is hardly its only problem.
Lawmaker Robert Shlegel, who tracks Internet-related issues and added minor changes to the copyright bill, has said the domestic film industry is losing up to 60 billion rubles ($2 billion) a year to piracy.
However, at the box office, the 68 Russian films released last year only grossed about 40 billion rubles ($1.2 billion), or 14 percent of the country's total, with most ending up in the red, the Kinobusiness.com film industry website said in late December.
Experts and industry representatives have been debating the problems in Russian filmmaking for years, among them: poor distribution networks, both online and offline; excessive state support that de-incentivizes the production of commercially viable films (the state paid for 44 percent of all moviemaking expenses in 2012, according to the RBC Daily newspaper); and poor quality – an issue raised repeatedly by industry players, including the head of Channel One, Konstantin Ernst.
“The quality of [Russian] film content is falling,” Sergei Kitin, the head of the Cinema Park movie theater network, was quoted by RBC as saying last fall. “We sometimes have to pull films ahead of time because the movie halls are empty.”
As Russians Go Online, Authorities Crack Down
Since 1994, when the first .ru domain went online, Russian authorities largely overlooked the country’s Internet industry as insignificant both economically and socially.
But the number of adult Internet users in Russia has gone up from 8.8 million, or 8 percent of the adult population, in 2001 to 64.4 million (55 percent) in 2013, according to the state-run pollster VTsIOM.
This rise in numbers has made regulation more necessary, but the debate now concerns its aims, methods and transparency.
The battle for control of the Internet in Russia shifted into high gear last November, when a new law came into effect allowing government agencies to blacklist – without court order – websites deemed to be promoting suicide, illegal drugs or child pornography.
Other criteria initially proposed as grounds for a ban included “propaganda of extremism” and of homosexuality, but were dropped after a public outcry.
Proponents of regulation often defend it saying the Internet has become a free-for-all.
“There is just too much filth, and it needed to be cleaned out,” said Denis Davydov, head of the League of Safe Internet, a government-affiliated nonprofit group that co-drafted the blacklist bill.
About 150 websites were on the blacklist as of July 1, but another 6,800 unrelated sites fell victim to the ban because the government is using a flawed blocking mechanism, targeting IP addresses instead of URLs, according to independent internet watchdog Rublacklist.net.
Officials have also faced criticism for targeting informational content, like “Dumb Ways to Die” or an article about cannabis on Russian Wikipedia, banned last spring as promoting drug use.
And more groups are trying to get on the bandwagon: A state watchdog overseeing alcohol production wanted the power to blacklist unlicensed online alcohol retailers, and radical animal rights activists called for a ban on webpages promoting animal cruelty.
“They’ve created a precedent; now they can tack any kind of ban onto this law,” said Shakirov of the Pirate Party.
Broader Prohibitive Trend
The heightened Internet regulation has coincided with a much broader Kremlin crackdown on political activism as Vladimir Putin returned for a third presidential term in spring 2012.
Starting in the middle of last year, authorities have opened cases against political opposition leaders and rank-and-file activists and tightened legislation on public rallies, media and NGOs.
Until late last year, the Internet had not been singled out as a target. But one byproduct of rising usage has been its disruptive effect on government spin efforts, as independent online media have begun to rival state-controlled television as providers of political information. Facebook and other social networks have also played a crucial role in organizing anti-Kremlin rallies ongoing in Moscow since late 2011.
Supporters of the recent Internet-related legislation say it has no political undercurrents.
“Since November, not a single website has been blocked for political reasons,” said Davydov of the League of Safe Internet.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, have been ratcheting up regulation of various public manifestations of personal beliefs and lifestyle choices, from homosexuality to smoking to adoptions to religion.
But even critics of the new Internet legislation believe the Kremlin is not instigating or controlling the Duma’s regulative zeal, just quietly supporting it.
“It's all overzealous lawmakers. As long as they stick to the prohibitive trend, they can push through any bill,” Nossik told RIA Novosti. “And many of them don't understand the Internet and hate it.”
No Need for New Laws
In fact, some activists point out, Russian authorities do not need new legislation to target the Internet: They can do so with existing laws, for example the anti-extremism law – vaguely worded legislation that has been used against defendants as varied as proponents of jihad, nationalist radicals and opposition-minded pundit Andrei Piontkovsky, though he managed to fend off the allegations in court.
One hundred three criminal cases were opened against bloggers and Internet commentators based on their posts in 2012, according to the Kazan-based rights watchdog Agora, an almost threefold increase year on year.
Government agencies also have the right to cite media for violating the anti-extremism law – with two citations being sufficient grounds to close down an outlet. Major independent media, including the Vedomosti business daily, Gazeta.ru news website and Kommersant-Vlast weekly, have been cited, though did not face closure.
A Foot in the Door to Censorship?
Most critics of the new regulations interviewed by RIA agreed that the government is concerned by the Internet's political impact and seeks to keep its censorship options open, at the very least.
“I think they just wanted to do a sort of a test on how to regulate the Internet, and picked child porn because the League was there to propose it,” Shakirov of the Pirate Party said of the blacklist law, referring to the League of Safe Internet.
The recent bills are at least partially motivated by the Kremlin’s displeasure with the rampant abuse it takes from online critics, according to Grebennikov of RAEC.
“Web surfers brought it upon themselves: They’ve been slinging too much mud at the authorities, believing they will never be caught,” he said.
The extent of Russian netizens’ and the Internet industry’s opposition to the increased regulation will be clearer on August 1, when protesters plan to hold a nationwide “Internet strike.” So far, no major Russian-language wewebsites, including RAEC members, have backed the idea – but there is still time.