Earlier this week, the Agora International Human Rights Group published a new report titled “Internet Freedom 2017: Creeping Criminalization,” where researchers Damir Gainutdinov and Pavel Chikov assessed the Russian authorities’ approach to regulating the Internet. Agora’s findings are distressing: journalists, bloggers, and online activists continue to face persecution, and the state is expanding the grounds on which it can block or ban certain content.
You can read the full Russian text of Agora’s report here (pdf); an Excel file is also available here (xlsx), cataloging each act of Internet censorship; and here (jpg) you can see all the cases displayed on a map of Russia, broken down by region.
The Agora International Human Rights Group has been monitoring Russian Internet freedom for a decade. The organization published its first survey in 2011, reviewing the state of Russian Internet freedom between 2008 and 2010. Agora has issued these reports annually, ever since.
In 2017, Agora counted 115,706 separate instances of restrictions on Internet freedom, including 110,000 decisions by state regulators to block, filter, or ban online information on various grounds. These figures reflect the federal government’s official statistics. According to activists at the Roskomsvoboda project, the number of websites blocked in 2017 skyrockets to more than 7 million when taking into account concurrent blocks (all the websites that are blocked when whole domains are blacklisted). In the past five years, the authorities have actually blocked more than 10 million websites, says Roskomsvoboda.
State officials tell another story, however. According to Roskomnadzor, the number of “blacklisted” websites “stabilized” in 2017, reaching 88,000 — only slightly more than in 2016. (By way of comparison, Russia’s federal censor blocked just 50,000 websites in 2015 and fewer than 30,000 a year earlier.)
On multiple occasions in 2017, according to Agora’s new report, the Russian authorities outlawed new types of Internet activity. For example, the government started regarding the use of encryption and anonymizers as suspicious behavior. Agora describes the campaign against online "suicide groups," which began in 2016 and continued in 2017, as Russia’s "first mass criminal legal campaign directly aimed at the Internet." That case led not only to the conviction of Filipp Budeykin (who in July 2017 was sentenced to three years and four months in prison), but also to new offenses added to the country’s criminal code.
In addition to existing legislation criminalizing incitements to suicide (Criminal Code Articles 110.1 and 110.2), Russian lawmakers introduced a whole series of new offenses in 2017 that were designed to compensate for the inefficiency of trying to restrict the spread of information by blocking websites. “The authorities’ main target is now the users who disseminate prohibited content,” says Agora’s report, citing new regulations on the use of the Internet and the mass media (added to laws against illegal trafficking in rare animals and inciting minors to dangerous behavior).
Agora recorded a spike in the number of attacks on Russian Internet users, as well as more criminal cases and prison sentences against these people. In 2017, law enforcement continued to prosecute many Internet users on extremism charges, but there was also a sharp increase in the number of cases based on alleged terrorist propaganda and incitement to terrorism.
In 2017, the Russian authorities also sought to restrict anonymity on the Internet and to "sovereignize" the Russian segment of the World Wide Web. These efforts included the Federal Security Service demanding that Telegram hand over its encryption keys, the criminal case against mathematician Dmitry Bogatov, who operated a Tor exit node, and legislation requiring VPN administrators to block websites prohibited in Russia. A law forcing instant messenger services to identify their users was supposed to take effect on January 1, 2018, but enforcement has stalled because of disagreements about the legislation's bylaws.
Agora notes that the function of monitoring, regulating, and controlling the Internet continues to slip from Roskomnadzor to the Attorney General’s Office and Russia’s other national security groups. “As a result, the Internet is becoming the jurisdiction of the law enforcement agencies, and consequently any players there are at risk of becoming their ‘clients,’” the report's authors conclude.