The Russian parliament has green-lit two new laws that would allow the authorities there to fine or even jail people for disrespecting the government online, and for spreading so-called “fake news.”
One law, if finalized, would prohibit posts that show disrespect for Russian society, the state, state symbols, and the authorities there, such as President Vladimir Putin. The other targets “fake news” but would also force Internet service providers to block content which offends “public morality.” The Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, approved both overwhelmingly on Thursday.
The new “fake news” law would require news sites to register with the communications regulator Roskomnadzor if they don’t want to be blocked without an opportunity to first take down the offending information. Roskomnadzor would be the arbiter of what news is “fake” and what is not.
Russia is hardly the first country to use the recent “fake news” panic as an opportunity for repressive new laws—both Malaysia and Egypt have justified clampdowns on dissent and media freedom as tools to fight disinformation.
However, in Russia the new laws—still awaiting final approval from the parliament’s upper house and Putin—are the latest in a list of online-freedom limitations that is getting extremely long.
Over the last few years, the Russian authorities have:
- Prosecuted many people for liking comments and sharing memes with “extremist” sentiments, such as mockery of religious figures;
- Banned privacy-protecting virtual private network (VPN) services;
- Required telecoms providers to store details of citizens’ communications and record which citizens are using which messaging apps;
- Required encrypted messaging providers to hand over encryption keys (a refusal to comply led to the banning of the Telegram app);
- Ordered tech firms to store Russian citizens’ data in Russian data centers (something Facebook and Twitter have been pushing back against);
- And repeatedly talked about re-engineering Russia’s online infrastructure—the so-called “Runet”—so it can if needed be cut off from the rest of the Internet.
Russia has fallen in the international online freedom stakes over each of the last six years. The NGO Freedom House now lists the country as being more repressive online than Thailand and Gambia.