Russian Internet Experts Push ‘Real Name’ Policy for Comments on News Websites

If online comments are not anonymous, users can bear the full brunt of responsibility, Russia's Internet experts say. Images edited by Tetyana Lokot.

If online comments are not anonymous, users can bear the full brunt of responsibility, Russia's Internet experts say. Images edited by Tetyana Lokot.

Russian Internet users may soon be required to register with a state services portal in order to post comments on news websites.

Under this newly proposed policy, users would be required to register with Russia's Unified Identification and Authentication System (ESIA), a move that would shift the responsibility for the comments away from media outlets and onto users. This would relieve news websites of some of the burdens of moderating and policing comments on their sites. But it also could prohibit readers from posting comments anonymously.

Introducing such a shift in responsibility would necessitate a change in existing Russian legislation. A decree of the Russian Supreme court from 2010 currently holds officially registered online media outlets responsible for any comments their readers leave on their pages or forums, including those that promote social, national or religious hatred, if such comments are still available to readers after Roscomnadzor requests they be deleted or edited. Shifting the blame to registered users would require new legislative norms.

The commenter registration initiative is the brainchild of the Institute for Internet Development (IDI), a non-government agency headed by Putin's Internet advisor German Klimenko, and is part of the Internet development “roadmap” the agency is preparing for Russian president Vladimir Putin. The initiative will be discussed in the State Duma (Russian parliament) in mid-May by experts from the Communications Ministry, state censor Roscomnadzor, industry representatives, media outlets and lawmakers.

Twenty-six million Russians are currently registered in the state Unified Identification and Authentication System, and most of them use their passport data to register in the system. IDI's Aleksandr Mikheyev, the author of the idea, told Izvestia newspaper that the system would be voluntary for media outlets.

Мы хотим дать возможность читателям СМИ авторизоваться через любые соцсети или портал госуслуг. Это касается только комментариев и должно быть на добровольной основе для СМИ.

We want to give the readers of the media websites the possibility to identify themselves through any social network or through the state services portal. This only relates to comments and should be voluntary for the media outlets.

Given the voluntary nature of the suggested “real name” policy, it's likely that some news websites might choose to require ID (some, like Rambler&Co, are doing it already), while others might stick with the current system and bear the brunt of responsibility for the comments. But even if it's optional, the policy could still change how Russian Internet users are engaging with each other on news websites, especially if the most popular platforms choose to require user ID.

Deputy head of the State Duma committee on information policy Vadim Dengin told Izvestia he thought introducing user registration and minimizing anonymous comments would protect the interests of journalists, who he thought would be subjected to “less baseless criticism.”

Мы должны идти к тому, чтобы верификация пользователей была повсеместной. В повседневной жизни есть паспорт, и человек показывает его почти везде, и в интернете должно быть так же. Тут нечего бояться. Это правильный шаг. Мы прекрасно это понимаем.

We should strive to make user verification ubiquitous. In everyday life, everyone has a passport, and a person shows it almost anywhere, so it should be the same on the Internet. There's nothing to fear here. This is the right step. We understand this perfectly.

However, Russian digital rights activists from RosKomSvoboda questioned Dengin's logic on who the new norm might protect and expressed concerns that users who identify themselves in comment sections might face the same kinds of penalties, including fines and even prison sentences, under “anti-extremist” legislation that social media users have already been subjected to for posting content online.

С одной стороны, за СМИ хочется порадоваться, если с них снимут ответственность за людей, к которым они не имеют никакого отношения и зачастую позицию их не разделяют, с другой — это лишит пользователей права анонимности, ведь кроме обычных троллей и «хейтеров», своё мнение порой высказывают люди, которые опасаются за свою безопасность, в том числе и по причине наличия законов, не всегда правомерно наказывающих за высказывания.

On the one hand, we'd like to be happy on behalf of the media, if they will no longer be responsible for people who they don't have anything to do with and whose opinion they often do not share. On the other hand, this will leave users without the right to anonymity, since, apart from the regular trolls and ‘haters,’ some of the people who express their opinions may fear for their safety, in no small part because of the laws that don't always adequately sanction them for their speech.

The Russian government's increasing efforts to minimize user anonymity online have been complemented by a growing number of Internet users prosecuted for extremism-related crimes. According to a report from the Center of Economic and Political Reforms, the number of Russian citizens prosecuted under Article 282 of the criminal code (inciting hatred or enmity, or abasement of human dignity) has grown three-fold since 2011. Prosecutions under parts 1 and 2 of Article 280 of the criminal code (public calls for extremist and separatist activity, including public calls made using the media or Internet) has also grown considerably. The Center's experts credit the proliferation of “anti-extremist” sentences to the “vague” nature of the legal norms and note that the Russian notion of “extremism” has no clear equivalent in international law.

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