Let there be no misunderstanding: the Russian parliament’s latest salvo against press freedom and self-expression marks the end of online free speech in Russia.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the legislation, which comes into effect on August 1, “declares that any blogger with more than 3,000 daily visitors to its website or page, including on social media platforms, must register as a media outlet and submit to regulations set by Russia’s media law.”
“Requirements include obeying the election law, avoiding profanity, and publishing age-restriction warnings on adult content. A blogger, defined as “a person publicizing information on a personal website or page,” is subject to penalties for publishing unchecked facts, and is liable for the content of reader comments as well as self-published content.”
This section’s particularly galling because Section 230 of Title 47 of the US Code (part of the 1996 Communication Decency Act) holds that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. As EFF reported, it’s likely that “your readers’ comments, entries written by guest bloggers, tips sent by email, and information provided to you through an RSS feed would be considered information provided by another content provider”.
Oppressive governments around the world have long sought to regulate the internet. Forcing bloggers to register as media outlets and/or penalizing them for profane comments on their site is a slippery slope towards total accountability online, with heavy penalties for speech the Russian government disagrees with.
Holding content providers and online publishers accountable for user-generated content is a deviation from how these systems normally work — Flickr complies with copyright takedown notices, but it doesn’t police the photos its users uploads, and Flickr.com as a whole isn’t in danger of being taken down by one rogue copyright infringement. Wikipedia’s mantra of “anyone can edit” would fall down if changes had to be proactively screened for copyright infringement or libel.
It’s become a cliché to call every encroachment on free speech “Orwellian” but the legislation is clearly defined with the end goal of self-censorship. The Russian government doesn’t like critical speech directed its way, so it would be easier if some people just weren’t allowed to speak at all.
Right now, a 16-year-old Gazan has 113,000 twitter followers as she tweets images from the ground in Palestine. The decentralized Internet, unconstrained by national boundaries, lowers the barriers to entry onto the international stage.
One person can now broadcast to millions, and some governments are terrified of this.
Tommy Collison is an activist and writer.