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The right stuff How the Russian authorities forced the country’s top news aggregator to purge unwanted stories

Источник: Meduza
Casimiro PT / Shutterstock.com

On August 15, 2019, top lawmakers in Russia’s State Duma said they will consider new legislation that would restrict foreign citizens’ right to own major Russian websites. The announcement came after an inaccurate story (about Russia possibly banning the sale of some older cars) reached the top of Yandex’s news aggregator. Several hours after the article started trending online, State Duma deputies refuted the information. Now, in response to this incident, they want to force Yandex, which has its head office in the Netherlands, to transfer control to Russia. This new campaign against the tech giant, however, is hardly the government’s first and only meddling. For the past three years, the authorities have gradually imposed greater control over what is displayed by Yandex’s news aggregator, which happens to be the single most popular news source on the Russian Internet.

June 8, 2016

The State Duma adopts new legislation concerning news aggregators like Yandex.News and Google News, which automatically collect publications from online sources. News aggregators are now required to verify the “reliability of all information” reported by sources not registered as media outlets with Roskomnadzor. Aggregators are required to delete all “unverified” publications from their results at Roskomnadzor’s request, and compliance delays risk fines between 600,000 rubles ($9,025) and 1 million rubles ($15,040). 

The first draft of this legislation also includes restrictions on how many shares foreigners can own in news aggregators, but this language is later removed from the bill.

July 25, 2016

Tatyana Isaeva, the head of Yandex’s news-aggregation service since 2012, says she’s stepping down from the company, explaining in a post on Facebook that Russia’s media crackdown and the law on news aggregators has made her job boring. In an interview with Meduza, Isaeva says there will be far fewer alternative viewpoints represented at Yandex.News, if they appear at all, once the new law takes effect.

October 20, 2016

Yandex announces that media reports from outlets without Roskomnadzor registration will disappear from its main page, and from the front page and news segments at Yandex.News.

January 1, 2017

The restrictions on news aggregators take effect. Meduza is one of many outlets without Roskomnadzor registration that disappears from the front page and news segments at Yandex.News. 

March 26, 2017

Activists in Moscow and cities across Russia stage mass protests against corruption, following the release of an investigative report by the Anti-Corruption Foundation about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. More than 60,000 people join rallies in 82 cities nationwide. On the Yandex and Yandex.News home pages, there’s almost no mention of these demonstrations.

The next day

Yandex acknowledges errors in its news coverage of the protests and admits to “lag,” but it rejects allegations of censorship and manipulated results, emphasizing that its news agenda is still formulated automatically. The company directly attributes this lag to the new restrictions on news aggregators, which have reduced the number of information sources feeding Yandex.News.

October 2018

State Duma lawmakers from LDPR and United Russia reintroduce legislation that would ban foreigners from owning more than 20 percent of news aggregators. These reforms would directly affect Yandex, as its home office, “Yandex N.V.,” is registered in the Netherlands and most of its shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, Yandex founder and CEO Arkady Volozh, a citizen of Russia and Malta, owns just over 10 percent of the company, according to Yandex N.V.’s last annual report.

February 19, 2019

The State Duma indefinitely postpones further consideration of the bill, after Russia’s Constitutional Court rules that the new restrictions would violate property rights.

July 26, 2019

For the third time, State Duma deputies introduce legislation that would limit foreign ownership of popular Russian websites to 20 percent. The wording is a little different now: the bill’s author, United Russia deputy Anton Gorelkin, calls these websites “significant information resources.” The draft legislation would empower a government commission, working with recommendations from Roskomnadzor, to determine what qualifies under this definition.

Yandex strongly opposes the bill, saying publicly, “The unique ecosystem of Russia’s Internet businesses will be destroyed.”

July 29, 2019

Communications Minister Konstantin Noskov sharply criticizes the legislation, saying he categorically opposes the initiative to limit foreign ownership of popular Russian websites. Noskov says the bill targets Yandex and Mail.ru Group, which he calls “Russia’s national treasures.”

August 14, 2019

The newspaper Kommersant publishes an article about a legislative initiative from United Russia State Duma deputy Alfiya Kogogina, who sent a letter to Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry and Transportation Ministry recommending a ban on the sale of certain older cars. Hundreds of other news outlets then publish their own stories based on this article, and the issue becomes top news at Yandex.News. Yandex later says it indexed more than 350 publications about this story.

A few hours later

In a statement on the Duma’s website, Kogogina explains that her letter has no legislative force, and her recommendations concern only commercial vehicles, not personal transportation. 

Later that evening

Andrey Isaev, United Russia’s first deputy faction head in the State Duma, says the parliament will demand a report from the country’s news aggregators next month, asking them to explain why they are “deliberately escalating” Russia's “socio-political situation.”

“The top results for news aggregators and Internet search websites still show the headline ‘State Duma Proposes Banning Operation of Old Cars.’ This looks exceedingly strange,” Isaev says in a statement published on the State Duma’s website. “In early September, we’d like to meet with representatives of these news and search aggregators, especially if they’re registered abroad, to understand why they’re doing this.”

August 15, 2019

State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin says the scandalous story about lawmakers banning old cars remained in the top results of Yandex.News even after the legislature refuted it. In these situations, “it’s possible to detect an element of foreign interference,” says a statement published on the State Duma’s website. Volodin and Isaev discuss the legislation that would restrict foreigners’ ownership in “significant Internet resources,” and Isaev tells the television network Dozhd that United Russia lawmakers are now prepared to support this initiative, following the incident with the “old cars” report.

Also on the State Duma’s website, there’s an announcement published saying that the State Duma Council will hold a special meeting on August 19 to discuss the issue of “fake news” on Yandex. The announcement is posted as the main article on the parliament’s website.

A few hours later

Writing on Facebook, Vedomosti media editor Ksenia Boletskaya publishes a minute-by-minute analysis of the appearance of articles about the old-car ban and when they reached the front page of Yandex.News, refuting Volodin’s claim that the Yandex aggregator published false information and headlines in its top-news section.

Almost simultaneously

Yandex says again that its news-aggregation algorithm still collects information automatically, drawing only on reports from licensed media outlets, and the headlines and excerpts from these articles are displayed by Yandex without any alterations. The company also points out that there were several later reports about Kogogina’s clarification, but most media outlets never published retractions.

Story by Petr Lokhov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock