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In ‘kontakt’ with the cops When Russian police go after Internet users, why do they target people on Vkontakte almost exclusively?

Source: Meduza
Photo: Mikhail Dzhaparidze / AP / Scanpix / LETA

According to the human rights group “Sova,” which monitors the enforcement of anti-extremism legislation in Russia, 119 people were convicted last year of criminal activity for posting and reposting content on the social network Vkontakte. For comparison: in 2015, police went after only three users of Odnoklassniki (another Russian social network) and just a single Facebook user. In 2016, nearly every day there is a new report of another Vkontakte user falling afoul of the law for posting or reposting something deemed to be illegal. Recently, on July 1, for instance, a man living in Sevastopol was charged with extremism for remarks he published online insulting fans of the soccer team “Spartak.” And on July 4, a court in Perm fined a man 200,000 rubles ($3,120) for reposting an article deemed to violate Russia's law against the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” In both cases, the illegal content, once again, was published on Vkontakte. Meduza asked four experts to explain why it's nearly always Vkontakte users, and almost never people on other social networks, who seem to be prosecuted for breaking Russia's laws against extremism.

Sarkis Darbinyan

Head of the legal team for the nonprofit organization “Roskomsvoboda”

Photo: Roskomsvoboda / YouTube

The trend toward censorship on social networks is something we've been tracking since 2012. Today, all the measures we're seeing are taken to move from “Plan A” (“censorship by official state agencies”) to “Plan B” (“the introduction of self-censorship”), so that the administrators of communities and groups on social networks, and of course users with individual accounts themselves, start censoring the information they spread online.

Most often, policing Russian social media means charging Internet users with violations of criminal-code Article 280 (inciting people to extremism) and Article 282 (extremist hate speech) for publishing so-called extremist statements related to Ukraine or Syria. And most often these cases involve users of the social network Vkontakte, which is highly accessible to Russian law enforcement officers, because it's owned by the Russian company Group. This makes it relatively easy for police agencies to obtain any kind of information available about a particular user. Vkontakte complies unconditionally with Russia's law on “the organizers of information distribution”—the so-called “law on bloggers”—which requires social networks to collect and store all logs and all user data for a period of six months after the data is created. Websites like Facebook and Twitter are in no hurry to share this information with Russian officials, but Vkontakte doesn't need to be asked twice to hand over such data, without which it would be impossible for police to bring charges against individuals or prove anyone's guilt in a criminal trial.

In 2015 alone, we saw roughly 200 criminal cases against people who shared things online, and there were almost two dozen prison sentences handed down to Internet users for remarks they made on social media. I suspect this is just the beginning. For now, police are relying on two articles in the criminal code that deal with extremism, but there's a wide selection of other statutes they could start drawing on, too. This is uncharted territory.

It's also necessary to point out that Russian law enforcement doesn't distinguish between “posts,” “reposts,” and “retweets.” According to international standards, no one should be held responsible for distributing content they didn't create. That norm isn't observed in Russia.

In almost every case on this list, we see the same procedure for gathering evidence. There are so-called expert examinations conducted by persons affiliated with the investigations (which, incidentally, is a separate problem for proving suspects' guilt, because the trials come to resemble a battle of experts). The courts don't want to draw any of their own subjective conclusions, and they don't evaluate independently the context or phrases used by the suspects, so they basically rely entirely on the opinions of experts who are tied to the Justice Ministry and other law-enforcement agencies. And, every time, the result is one and the same: the online content is found to incite social hatred. Enforcement of these criminal statutes is closely linked to Russia's political situation and to its foreign policy. The legal system uses these prosecutions to tone down the rhetoric of Russia's social-media users.

The criminal case against [the media entrepreneur and popular blogger] Anton Nossik clearly demonstrates that no one is immune from this—in fact, you might even be locked up for expressing support for Russia's military policies in Syria. Generally speaking, the system works very randomly. Sometimes the people on the defendant's bench are civil society activists. Other times it's oppositionists. But usually it's ordinary people who aren't really doing anything you'd consider political or social. 

Law enforcement's interest in “number-driven” statistics [meeting its quotas] can explain this. At the end of every year, police agencies need to report the number of crimes committed on social networks, and there needs to be enough of them. The police in a handful of regions, moreover, pursue these cases with particular zeal: the North Caucasus, the Krasnodar region, Tatarstan, Chuvashia, and the Volga region. This is where we see the largest numbers of prosecutions against social-media posts, with fewer coming from Eastern Siberia and Russia's Far East. Most likely, this can be explained by internal directives issued by the heads of regional departments within the Interior Ministry.

What can we do about this? Recently, Russia's Internet commissioner, Dmitry Marinichev, gathered all the experts on online hate speech—both lawyers and representatives from the Internet industry. We came to the conclusion that nonprofit human rights organizations monitoring this issue need to unite and write a collective appeal to the Plenum of Russia's Supreme Court, asking it to meet and determine formally how these criminal statutes should be enforced. This could be a more effective way to stop local courts from convicting people indiscriminately. 

Sergei Smirnov

Chief editor of “Mediazona”

Photo: Rita Filippova

In [Russia], the authorities have created every opportunity to put people away for reposts. The police and the Federal Security Service (whose agents can also bring charges for reposts, if they involve terrorist acts) use these cases for the simple purpose of meeting their quotas and inflating their crime statistics. I'm afraid that it's precisely this brand of Soviet planning logic that decides how criminal cases are launched. Basically, Moscow told the regions: focus on reposts and on criminal-code articles 280 and 282, and that's just what they're doing. At first, there were lots of hate-speech cases, and statute 282 was the more popular charge. Then the agenda shifted to the threat of separatism, and we got a lot of cases involving Crimea. It's the kind of inertia you get with a big government machine that doesn't care who goes to prison: the bureaucrats just need to show the higher ups that they're fighting the fight against extremism.

This is how the whole practice of criminally prosecuting people for writing things on the Internet emerged. And take note that these cases tend to involve users of a particular social network: 90 percent of the time, it's Vkontakte users. Why? Because Vkontakte complies with investigators every time. What's more (and this, it seems to me, is even more important), the police agents are Vkontakte users themselves. They know Vkontakte a lot better than they know Facebook or Twitter, and so it's easier for them to work there. That, anyway, is my personal assumption. 

Completely different kinds of people are prosecuted for reposts: police have come for both nationalists and the antifascists who mock the nationalists; and they've come for people who only “liked” a post. There's no one, specific group of people with certain political views that's been targeted exclusively. And, out in the regions, there haven't been political radicals active in the streets for a long time. The most Russians can do today is express their discontent online. 

Before, they removed all the protesters from the streets. Now they want to remove them from the Internet, too. 

To avoid possible punishment for a repost, Internet users need to weigh the risks when publishing anything online. This is controversial, of course, but given the state of Russia's law-enforcement practices, there isn't really any other choice, sadly.

Russia's criminal statutes against separatism and inciting hatred are getting a lot of use these days, so we journalists have to be more careful. As a chief editor, I can say that we have to avoid quoting people directly, when writing articles; meaning, we can't reprint the exact phrase or post for which someone was prosecuted. If the phrase appears in a court verdict, however, then we can reprint it. But I think the authorities will find a way to come after any media outlet, if that's the task they're given—and they can do it will all the same criminal statutes. 

And the authorities can also focus on old posts or old videos. (I won't list any examples—I don't want to give them any help.) Or they can start using the statute against propagating violence, which can also be interpreted very broadly. On the other hand, there's also the chance that this whole campaign could end in an instant. For example, there was that one time when there was a massive hunt for spies, and then it stopped suddenly. I doubt that they ran out of spies. It's just that the central authorities told everybody: that's enough for now. There's absolutely no logic here at all.

Andrei Soldatov

Chief editor of

Photo: Facebook

It seems to me that the arrests and imprisonment of people for posts and reposts is the reflection of a major new trend that means the authorities have come to a desperate period. The scheme they were using—the one they thought would give them control of the Internet—didn't work. 

That scheme was based on two things: first, on a Russian system of Internet control built not on technology, but on intimidation. In this case, the authorities wagered that they could use the law on data-server localization to force the major Internet companies—like Facebook, Twitter, and Google—to move their servers to Russia. But this didn't work out, and so they came up with a whole [new] strategy. 

Second, [Russia's state censor] Roskomnadzor and other government agencies that police the Internet were always saying that Russia's filtration technologies were poor, but that it didn't matter, because so few people used circumvention tools, like Tor. But last fall they made the terrible mistake of banning [the torrent-tracker] RuTracker, after which Russia moved to second place in the world in terms of Tor users. Now Russia is second only to the United States. Then it became clear that Facebook couldn't be blackmailed with the threat of being banned in Russia, and—in another important moment last fall—it became known that the Interior Ministry's research center (which had been tasked with cracking Tor) couldn't complete its assignment and backed out of the contract.

A new strategy was needed, but its creation would take time. Until then, it was decided to adopt stricter “rules of the game.” For example, the authorities [started] locking people away for things they post on social networks. The Russian authorities, unlike traditional totalitarian systems, focused not on blocking access to information, but on suppressing free discussion. They didn't restrict people's access to information, but they limited people's access to the platforms where they could hold discussions. They intimidated people as much as possible, so they wouldn't participate in discussions of important political issues. So it makes sense that the social network Vkontakte immediately became the main target. I think this is due to two things: on the one hand, Facebook cooperates less with the Russian authorities, not providing them with any [internal] information, unlike Vkontakte, which has all of its servers inside Russia.

But the main reason why it's precisely Vkontakte users who come under attack isn't directly related to the network itself. The reason is that Russia's system of online surveillance isn't aimed at identifying users. It operates offline, and practically everyone who's been prosecuted for posts on Vkontakte already had a file with local police—usually with the regional authorities. In other words, these people are various regional activists who are already known to the local “Center E” [counter-extremism] police force, the local FSB branch, or the local district attorney. They're environmentalists and political activists. 

Our system is the reverse of the West's. The idea of mass surveillance—what the world learned from Edward Snowden—is that we take a system where we run a global search across a network to catch anyone saying something sensitive. But [in Russia], it's the opposite: we already have a preliminary list of people who are under suspicion, and we use the online surveillance system to find the grounds to send them to prison. 

Right now, the priority is everything associated with Ukraine and Crimea. The order to rack up criminal cases tied to Ukraine, of course, came from the center. But no one interferes with this agenda (for instance, with the [September 2016] State Duma elections), or stops the authorities from thinking up something else. After all, the system for fighting extremism was developed back in 2008, during the economic crisis. The security forces said, “The economic crisis can lead to social unrest, so we need to monitor everyone and catch the people who [show] discontent.” Today, there's nothing stopping the authorities from migrating this system from Ukraine back to the economic crisis.

At this point, the Russian authorities won't be coming up with anything technologically new. This becomes clear from conversations with the people who work on this. But that doesn't stop lawmakers from adopting yet another repressive set of laws. It costs nothing in terms of time: you can write the whole thing in a week. And it doesn't stop the authorities from launching a whole new slew of criminal cases, which doesn't require any new technology, either. 

There's actually something optimistic about the fact that they're not doing anything new with technology. The only downside is that the authorities can always return to the good old method of intimidating people with criminal prosecutions. And then we'd be talking about hundreds of cases, not dozens.

And Facebook still exists as a platform for discussion. There's a sense that the Russian special services still don't really know what to do with it. Also, there are constantly efforts to create various new secure platforms to discuss current events. I'm optimistic. After all, if the role of technology in Soviet dissident movements was relatively low, today its role is enormous, and in places where technologies appear, security services—especially Russia's—are far behind.

Alexander Verkhovsky

Director of the information-analytical center “Sova”

Photo: Nikolai Dudukin / PhotoXPress

Let's talk about the case against the man in Perm, who was fined for “rehabilitating Nazism.” He was charged under criminal-code Article 354.1, which has two different formulations. The first one is typical for many European countries: it concerns denials of crimes recognized by the Nuremberg Tribunal. The second clause bans the defamation of the Soviet Union's actions during World War II. And in this latter subsection, the language is exceedingly unclear. No matter how hard I try, I haven't been able to grasp what the lawmakers wanted to say. The only thing that's clear is that it concerns some kind of defamatory statements directed at the USSR in connection with the events of the Second World War. This language wasn't part of the law before, and—if I'm being honest—it's not terribly clear what the phrase “knowingly false statements” (about the Soviet government's actions) actually means. After all, a person can have a wrong view of history. Maybe they didn't understand something correctly in school, or forgot what they learned, and later wrote something that isn't true. Where's the crime here? A crime assumes some form of criminal intent, but determining its presence in such cases is virtually impossible.

It's pointless to argue about how many historical inaccuracies this man made or didn't make in the article [for which he was prosecuted]. If you read through a few of his posts [on Vkontakte], it becomes clear that he is an ardent critic of Moscow's intervention in Ukraine—hence all his problems with the law in Russia. The police simply couldn't think of anything more intelligent than to charge him with defaming the USSR.

Over the past year, the number of sentences handed down for so-called extremist statements spiked sharply, and this number continues to rise. According to our calculations, 85 percent of the cases associated with “extremist content” relate to post and reposts on the Internet. What's more, the proportion of convictions for online statements is growing rapidly, while the share of convictions for racist violent attacks is shrinking. There have indeed been fewer attacks in recent years, and what are law-enforcement agencies left to do? They need to keep up their [solved-crime] statistics, so they turn to the Internet, where it's far easier to look for law offenders, anyhow.

There's no surprise here, but what's interesting is the content of these [extremist] statements and where they were published. In most cases, we are talking about the social network Vkontakte. This is because Vkontakte is the most popular social network among Russians, and the most popular network—though I have no idea why—among various radical activists. And who among us are the ones being targeted by these criminal statutes? Mainly, it's nationalists of various kinds and other radicals of different colors. These people are on Vkontakte, not Facebook. Why are they there? Probably because there are more users there, and also, well, to put it bluntly, out of stupidity. After all, in order for there to be a criminal case, the police need to identify the circumstances of the crime and, when concerning an online post, find the criminal. And how today do the authorities find a criminal on the Internet? They send a request to the social network's administrators, demanding the personal data of the person who wrote the post.

Vkontakte has Russian administrators, and it's foolish to expect that they won't respond to official requests from the police. How could they not respond? But if Facebook receives such a request, it takes a long time consulting its own internal terms of service, and its lawyers then make their own decision about whether a particular statement is illegal. This means Facebook can refuse to surrender any kind of data. For police, this situation is not ideal: once the case is opened, they need to be sure of a conviction. That's why it's a lot more convenient to appeal to Vkontakte, where you'll definitely get the right answer.

The most common thing people do on social networks is repost things. After all, if someone says he posted a video, it doesn't [necessarily] mean he uploaded the video or that he recorded it himself. It [generally] means he posted a link to something on YouTube. Can these actions even be criminal? In principle, the answer is yes, but everything depends on context. And there's been nothing new here, by the way, since 2010, when the Supreme Court issued its major ruling about how to enforce the fourth article of Russia's mass-media legislation. The court found that any quotation should be considered in the context in which the citation was made. 

A repost is a quotation—no matter how long or short. A person's comment on their repost can serve as the context, but you have to look at their entire social-media presence to determine what they had in mind when reposting something, if there is no comment. Someone might repost a quote that's an open incitement to murder, or to riot, or something else that anywhere in Europe would be considered illegal speech, but write just above the quote: “Just look at what this guy wrote. What a nightmare!” Or they might write: “This guy nailed it. Finally somebody understands!” Unfortunately, our investigators don't differentiate between these two cases. Generally speaking, investigators don't hardly look at the context at all.

Russian Internet users, meanwhile, are often careless, believing they don't need to comment on the things they repost, thinking everyone will understand what they meant. But the police investigators aren't in their circle of friends and subscribers, and they interpret these things in their own way. I realize it's impossible to write every phrase as if you're writing for the police, but the reality we face is that what you write for your friends is read by the police. This doesn't happen every time, of course, but it can happen to anyone.

What Vkontakte says

The press office for Vkontakte told Meduza the following: “We are the most popular social network in Russia, with 90 percent of the RuNet's users visiting our platform every month. For this reason, the network, like its users, often features in different news stories, including negative stories. Be that as it may, the security of our users' personal data is a top priority for the company. Vkontakte strictly adheres to current laws and fully complies with citizens' constitutional rights.”

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

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