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Russia’s social networks users under martial law A summary of Agora’s report on freedom in the Russian-language Internet

Source: Meduza
Photo: Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

In 2016, international human rights group Agora published a report on freedom of expression in the Russian-language Internet. The authors of the report – Agora head Pavel Chikov and Agora analyst Damir Gainutdinov – argue that the Russian-language Internet has become “a field for a large-scale cyber war” and that the country’s people are under “martial law”. The report contains data on cases of violence against journalists and bloggers, criminal cases related to re-posting, and legislative initiatives related to Internet regulation in Russia. Meduza briefly summarizes the report.

The Russian internet is under “martial law,” read a report by international human rights group The authors of the report believe that in the past five years, the Russian government has begun to perceive the Internet as a “theater of military operations.” The report reminded readers that the FSB had claimed to intercept 70 million cyberattacks on Russian news network in 2016 and that Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs periodically accuses foreign powers of spearheading and sponsoring such operations.

The residents of Russia, read the Agora report, have found themselves “in the rear of a state battling in cyberspace using the force of censorship and a tough response to any dissent.” Cases of violence and threats of violence in response to disseminating information on the Internet increased almost twofold in 2016. According to Agora’s statistics, at least 28 such episodes were registered in 2015 and no less than 50 such episodes were registered in 2016. The violent episodes in question were attacks on journalists and bloggers. The authors of the report mention the attack on a bus belonging to the “Committee for the Prevention of Torture” on the border of Ingushetia and Chechnya on March 9 and the attack of members of the ultra-conservative “National Liberation Movement” (GCD) on the finalists of a school competition organized by the international human rights organization Memorial. Agora noted that even “pro-government activists” were subjected to violence. For instance, in Saratov, an unidentified activist from Russia’s People’s Liberation Movement was beaten up for speaking out against police torture.

Over the past two years, at least 47 Russian citizens were sentenced to prison for posts on the Internet. According to Agora, 18 people were condemned in 2015 and 29 people were condemned in 2016, but three have been “subjected to coercive measures of a medical nature.”

Agora has counted a total of 298 cases of criminal prosecution for online activity; the majority of cases these cases are against individuals who make right-wing speeches and or incite to violence on social networks.

At least 97 legislative initiatives related to Internet regulation were announced and approved in Russia in 2016. There were only five in 2011. According to the authors of the report, most of these regulations “concern restrictions on the dissemination of information, the responsibilities of users, and facilitating the surveillance of citizens.” Agora analysts gave the example of Russia’s anti-terror legislation spearheaded by Duma member Irina Yarovaya in 2016. The amendments grant the government sweeping new powers to combat broadly-defined terrorism and extremism, and saddle Russia's telecoms industry with onerous new regulations that include storing copies of all telephone and Internet conversations. The legislation also requires Internet services to surrender all encryption technologies to the Russian authorities. 

The report’s authors also draw attention to the new doctrine of information security that Russia adopted in December 2016. The authorities believe one of the principle threats against them to be “psychological effects” of information disseminated through the Internet.