Today, August 1, Russia has introduced a set amendments to the Administrative Code, the Law on Information and the Law on Communications have been dubbed by journalists as the bill on bloggers.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin presented the raft of restrictive laws to the country’s rubber-stamp parliament in May with the clear aim of bringing under state control all blogs with more than 3,000 unique visitors a day, which will now have to provide their details to the sinisterly named Roskomnadzor, or Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, subjecting them to the same rules as other journalists working for traditional media.
Yandex and LiveJournal, a search engine and social networking site respectively, have responded by no longer publishing information about blogs’ rankings, or establishing as their upper limit 2,500 unique visitors. Needless to say, the government has said that it has its own resources for estimating pages’ traffic: I make the rules, I monitor who I want, and I will sanction who I see fit. Way to go.
So what happens when people are no longer allowed to express themselves with a reasonable degree of autonomy? We’re not talking here about defamation, insults, or any other kind of offense, which are already more than adequately covered by laws that existed before the internet, but legislation designed specially to censor, to prevent people expressing themselves freely via the medium that is obviously taking over from print as our main means of finding out what is going on at home and abroad. To all intents and purposes, this is a blatant case of “if you write certain things, you’re going to run into problems.” It’s not entirely dissimilar to what the Spanish government is proposing when it periodically trots out the line that, “the social networks need to be brought under control”, creating new laws in the process supposedly to prevent us from insulting each other.
Not knowing where to draw the line is a mistake democratically elected governments shouldn’t make. Free expression, when carried out with the appropriate respect, doesn’t need to be controlled, it is a fundamental right. The internet now means that anybody can establish themselves as a medium of communication, and if they go about it properly, can become widely read. Creating a whole new series of laws to control them is an attack on their democratic rights and are nothing less than totalitarianism.
What is happening in Russia should not be seen as in any way an isolated event. In reality, we all face the same threat from governments that see the growing power of the internet and want to put it under their control. The draconian measures applied by the dictatorships threatened by the Arab spring were a wake up call in countries where internet penetration is still relatively low. Many of the so-called democracies of the West are obviously in thrall of the control that countries such as China, Iran, and now Russia, are exercising over the internet, aware of the new challenge it presents to their control over information flows.
Governments such as Spain’s are making fools of themselves internationally by designing laws to try to control the internet, imposing taxes on links providers, and desperately trying to give the country’s print media—which they are able to control—some degree of relevance at a time when digital media are increasingly the public’s source of information. In other words, what Russia is doing. What is really disheartening about the Kremlin’s move is that my own government would love to be able to do the same.
Our democracies are having a hard time adapting to the reality of the internet age. Our governments’ responses to the internet reflect the health of our democracies, and we should hold them accountable on polling day. If you vote for a party with a tendency toward censoring the internet, or for politicians who see the internet as the worst of all evils, fearful that it will snatch control of information away from them, then you should know what to expect. Our politicians’ reaction to the net is the new litmus test of democracy. If you don’t like what you see: DON’T VOTE FOR THEM.
(En español, aquí)