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Leonid Levin

Russia will soon require digital journalists to delete ‘fake news’ ‘instantly.’ Here's what that actually means.

Source: Meduza
Leonid Levin
Leonid Levin
Sergey Bobylev / TASS / Vida Press

Russia’s State Duma has approved legislation outlawing “fake news”

On March 6, lawmakers passed the second reading of a bill that will make it illegal to post “fake news” on the Internet. The final vote tally was 327 deputies in favor, 42 deputies opposed. A day later, the State Duma will pass the third and final reading of the legislation, sending it to the Federation Council, which will then pass it along to Vladimir Putin, who’s expected to sign it into law.

The bill will impose fines on offenders across the Internet — formally registered digital mass media outlets and ordinary websites alike — but special procedures written into the legislation target only online news organizations. The new restrictions will not apply to newspapers, television networks, radio stations, or online news aggregators. Individuals who spread “fake news” will also face fines: up to 100,000 rubles ($1,520) for low-grade “fakes,” up to 300,000 rubles ($4,550) if the information disrupts vital facilities, and up to 400,000 rubles ($6,070) when someone dies as a result of the disseminated unverified information.

What is “fake news”? According to the Duma’s legislation, it’s any unverified information presented as fact that “threatens someone’s life and (or) their health or property, or threatens mass public disorder or danger, or threatens to interfere or disrupt vital infrastructure, transport or social services, credit organizations, or energy, industrial, or communications facilities.”

The Russian authorities will be empowered to block websites that violate the new statutes, though Leonid Levin (one of the legislation’s co-authors and the chair of the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee) says site administrators will have the opportunity to “correct any errors quickly” to avoid being blocked.

The legislation states that digital mass media outlets will be required to delete fake news “instantly”

Here’s the procedure laid out in the draft law:

  1. The Attorney General’s Office sees fake news on the Internet and informs Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor
  2. If a registered mass media outlet published the information, Roskomnadzor instantly orders the newsroom to delete the information
  3. Having been notified by Roskomnadzor of the violation, a digital news organization must instantly delete the information in question
  4. If a newsroom fails to remove the offending information instantly, the website is blocked

What if the news appears on an ordinary website that isn’t a registered mass media outlet?

Enforcement reverts to the existing procedure for blocking websites that host illegal content: they’re blocked immediately, and only afterwards administrators are asked to remove the offending information. For example, this is how Russia polices online incitements to rioting and unpermitted protests. The same is true for any website that publishes information created by banned “undesirable organizations.”

The legislation’s definition of “instantly” depends on the severity of the “fake news” in question. “If the information poses a threat, blocking is necessary immediately,” Leonid Levin told Meduza. “‘Instantly’ means in less than 24 hours, because the next step is a full day. But, when we discussed this with experts, we realized that we can’t make this standard effective, prescribing a day [as the delay for blocking].” Levin points out that the first draft of the legislation equated online media outlets to ordinary websites, meaning they would have been blocked first without any chance to remove the offending “fake news.”

Operating on a case-by-case basis, Levin says, officials from Roskomnadzor will determine how “instantly” online media outlets need to delete “fake news.” “There are situations like the ‘Winter Cherry’ — that’s one kind of situation. In less sensitive situations, the [urgency] might be defined differently. This was done to give media outlets a chance to delete the information themselves, not to ensure that they’re blocked. If the aim had been to block them, then believe me nobody would have introduced this amendment,” Levin added.

“Fake news” will be the first kind of information in Russia that websites are required to block “instantly”

The wording in Levin’s amendment — “in the event that an online outlet’s newsroom does not delete the information instantly [...]” — is unique. In other blocking procedures, Roskomnadzor gives Internet providers and website administrators time to reach a decision. Here’s how it works:

The Unified Register of Prohibited Information

Until last year, Internet providers were given a day to notify website administrators of any infractions, and the latter had another 24 hours to remove the offending content. Now the law says administrators must delete the information “instantly,” but a crucial caveat remains in place: the website is blocked only “in the event of the website owner’s refusal or inaction.” In other words, the Internet provider must determine that the site administrator isn’t taking steps to comply with state orders. According to the old rules, the provider and website owner were given three days in this process (one for notification, one for removal of the content, and one to judge “refusal or inaction”). The state hasn’t yet drafted a replacement procedure for its new “instantaneous” enforcement.

Piracy websites

Following a court ruling that identifies online pirated content, Roskomnadzor has three days to notify an offending website about its violation. The compliance procedure then takes another three days: Internet providers get a day to notify the website’s owners, who in turn have two days to delete the content. If the data is still online by then, Roskomnadzor blocks the website.

The same rules apply to websites that violate Russia’s laws on personal data processing.

Insulting state officials

Even in the recently adopted legislation that prohibits Internet users from insulting state officials (which also includes amendments drafted by Leonid Levin), website owners are given 24 hours to remove any flagged defamatory information. Incidentally, this law also includes the wording “in the event of refusal or inaction,” which implies an additional time buffer for enforcement.

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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