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Russian lawmakers drafted a new version of their latest lousy idea to regulate social media. But just how bad is it?

9 cards
  • What happened?
  • What’s the bill about?
  • What’s considered “a major social network”?
  • I’m already using my real name for all my accounts on social media. Who cares?
  • Can you be more specific about how social networks are supposed to delete “illegal” posts?
  • How is Roskomnadzor going to identify “fake news”?
  • What happens to the social networks that don’t comply?
  • Could such a law actually work?
  • But will they pass it?

What happened?

Deputies in Russia’s State Duma have drafted a new version of legislation that would impose additional regulations on social networks. This is an important document.


What’s the bill about?

This is hard to summarize, but here goes nothing:

  • Every major social network would be required to establish representation in Russia, to make it easier for the Russian authorities to communicate with these companies.
  • All major social networks would be forced to identify their users by their phone numbers. This would effectively make it impossible for Russians to use social media anonymously, because individuals have to surrender their passport information when purchasing SIM cards.
  • At their own users’ requests, all major social networks would be required to delete any information that violates Russian laws. Within 24 hours.
  • At the request of Roskomnadzor (Russia’s federal censor), all major social networks would have to delete any “unverified publicly significant information presented as reliable information.” In other words, the Russian government could force social networks to remove anything it says is “fake news.”
  • All major social networks would be required to prevent users from publishing content that promotes “pornography or a cult of violence.” They’d also be required to delete all obscene language. Yes, you read that right: the law would ban all swearing.

What’s considered “a major social network”?

Great question! The legislation’s authors refer to the concept of “a public network,” by which they mean any online resource where users can post “electronic messages” in text, pictures, audio, and other formats, and where they can share these messages with other people. The law would only apply to “popular networks”: websites and services with at least 100,000 daily visitors in Russia. This means the new regulations could even be applied to media outlets that let readers post comments and online stores where customers can leave feedback.


I’m already using my real name for all my accounts on social media. Who cares?

First, for various reasons, lots of people prefer to remain anonymous on social media. Prohibiting online anonymity is a tricky issue. Second, it’s important to remember that Russia recently passed “anti-terrorist laws” that require “information distribution organizers” to store all user correspondence. Regulators consider social networks to be “information distribution organizers,” which means the Russian authorities wouldn’t just be collecting a lot of different data about its citizens — it would also be able to understand relatively easily who was saying what.


Can you be more specific about how social networks are supposed to delete “illegal” posts?

Yes — this is actually a pretty interesting bit. In Russia, there are already lots of ways to commit a crime by posting things online. Vkontakte users, for example, are frequently prosecuted for spreading “extremism” for sharing content that supposedly offends religious people or displays banned symbols. The authors of the new draft legislation have cooked up the following procedure:

  1. A user sees something potentially illegal and complains to the social network’s administrators.
  2. Administrators have 24 hours to review the complaint. If they agree that the content is illegal, they’re required to delete the flagged post or comment.
  3. Administrators must keep records of all complaints and make them available to Roskomnadzor upon request.

The legislation says nothing about how users or social networks are supposed to determine what is illegal. Moreover, Russia’s “anti-extremism” laws are so vague and open to interpretation that social networks might simply delete anything flagged by users, to avoid the complications of contesting a complaint.


How is Roskomnadzor going to identify “fake news”?

Another great question! According to the legislation, this work would actually fall to Russia’s various state agencies. It’s supposed to work a little something like this:

  1. A state agency notices that someone has shared a false claim on social media. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sees posts about a fire killing hundreds of people, when in fact the number of victims is significantly lower. Using a convenient form, FEMA notifies Roskomnadzor.
  2. Roskomnadzor examines the notice and orders the owner of the relevant social network to delete the false information within 24 hours.
  3. If the social network fails to delete the information, Roskomnadzor orders Russian ISPs to block access to that particular web page. Because blocking individual pages on most social networks is usually impossible, many Internet providers would end up blocking entire social networks.

What happens to the social networks that don’t comply?

For first-time offenses, major social networks would face fines as high as 50 million rubles ($827,500). For repeated violations, the websites would be blocked.


Could such a law actually work?

It’s unclear. At a meeting with the legislation’s supporters in the State Duma, several experts and industry figures said plainly that the draft law is wildly impractical. For example, the legislation seeks to control “foul language” on social media, though thousands of new posts are written and published every second. Unfortunately, Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy’s response didn’t inspire much confidence: he said any technical issues with obeying Russia’s laws aren’t the State Duma’s problem. It’s up to the social networks to design websites that don’t break the law, Tolstoy said.

Experts also cited other examples of Russian Internet laws that have failed to work as intended. To demonstrate the problem, Irina Levova from the Internet Research Institute even offered to pull up on her browser any website that Russia supposedly blocks.

Based on the letter of the law, the Russian government long ago should have ordered all the biggest foreign social networks to register with Roskomnadzor as “information distribution organizers.” But it hasn’t, and that’s significant. Websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube still aren’t subject to many of the most draconian requirements of Russian Internet regulation. Earlier this year, when YouTube refused to delete a video uploaded by Alexey Navalny about the billionaire Oleg Deripaska, Roskomnadzor declined to exercise its authority to block YouTube. All this makes it hard to predict how a new law against “fake news” would work in practice.


But will they pass it?

Yes, probably. Recent history shows that State Duma lawmakers aren’t afraid to enrage Russia’s Internet industry experts. Amendments in committee could change the legislation’s final wording, but there’s little chance that the draft law will be rejected outright.

Text by Alexander Borzenko and Denis Dmitriev, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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