New Russian law demands self-censorship from social media platforms

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Smartphone in crowd. Image by SplitShire from Pixabay.

A new Russian law that came into force at the start of February 2021 places the burden of blocking prohibited content on popular social media platforms. This signals a change of pace for the RuNet, where content blocking was previously done by internet service providers or hosting services at the behest of state officials, law enforcement or courts.

The new law, №530-FZ, introduces a legal definition for “social networks”: any platform with over 500,000 daily visitors will now officially be classed as such and added to a special state registry. These officially designated “social network” sites will have to find and remove illegal content on their pages under their own steam, and will face stiff fines—anywhere from 800,000 rubles to 4 million rubles (10,860 to 54,310 USD)—if they fail to do so. Repeat offenses can lead to fines of up to one-tenth of the platform's annual revenue.

The types of online content currently classified as illegal under Russian law include sexually explicit images of children, information relating to drug use, suicide or propagating “dangerous activities” among minors, and adverts for alcohol or gambling. Information that offends human dignity or public morals or displays disrespect towards “society, the state, state symbols or public officials” is also prohibited. Another important category of banned content includes calls to mass disorder, extremism, terrorism or calls for participation in unsanctioned mass events, e.g., protest rallies.

It's worth noting that many social media platforms list many of these content categories as violating their platform terms of service, and likely already remove such content regularly as part of their content moderation practices. Experts point out that the most likely reason for the new legislation is the state's desire to curtail the growing discontent and protest activity in the country.

Mikhail Tretyak, head of IP/IT-practice at Digital Rights Center, told independent news outlet The Bell:

Законопроект направлен и на обязательную блокировку контента оппозиционных политиков. Это и информация, выражающая неуважение к органам государственной власти, и призывы к массовым беспорядкам и участию в несогласованных публичных мероприятиях. К тому же владелец социальной сети обязан не допускать использование ресурса для разглашения сведений, составляющих государственную или иную специально охраняемую законом тайну.

The law is aimed at mandatory blocking of content shared by opposition politicians. It also bans information offensive towards state bodies, and calls for mass disorder and participation in unsanctioned public events. The owner of the social network must also prevent their platform from being used for disclosing information that constitutes a state secret or any other secret information guarded by the law.

State-friendly NGO Safe Internet League has welcomed the law and has already compiled a list of social media platforms it believes should be added to the new registry posthaste. This list includes Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Telegram, and WhatsApp. Elena Mizulina, head of Safe Internet League, told state-run TASS news agency:

Мы призываем Роскомнадзор не медлить с созданием реестра, чем быстрее он будет создан, тем быстрее заработает сам закон и быстрее соцсети в России будут очищаться он запрещенной информации.

We implore Roskomnazdor not to procrastinate on the creation of the registry, the faster it is created, the faster the law will start working and the faster social networks in Russia will be cleansed of illegal information.

Sarkis Darbinyan, lead lawyer for digital rights organization Roskomsvoboda, thinks the new law will be more troublesome for Russian social networks, who may have to invest in more real-time content moderation. Platforms based outside Russia with no headquarters in the country can ignore the demands and are less likely to face wholesale blocking, Darbinyan says:

И так существовало множество других законов, по которым их можно блокировать хоть завтра. Но блокировка YouTube, Facebook или Twitter — это, очевидно, политическое решение, которое принимается не Роскомнадзором. И пока такого решения, как мы видим, нет.

There were already a number of other laws which would allow [the state] to block [these social media platforms]. But blocking YouTube, Facebook or Twitter is obviously a political decision, which is not made by Roskomnadzor. And so far, we have not seen such a decision.

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