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New law lets Russia jail people who ‘disrespect’ the government online

Man behind laptop, man hacker, laptop on desk

MOSCOW — Russia’s parliament has advanced strict new internet laws allowing the authorities to jail or fine those who spread fake news or disrespect government officials online.

Under the proposed laws, which still await final passage and presidential signature, people found guilty of spreading “indecent” posts that demonstrate “disrespect for society, the state, (and) state symbols of the Russian Federation,” as well as government officials such as President Vladimir Putin, can face up to 15 days in administrative detention for some offenses.

Private individuals who post “fake news” can be hit will small fines of between $45 and $75, and legal entities face much higher penalties of up to $15,000, according to draft legislation.

The anti-“fake news” bill — which passed the Duma, or lower house of parliament, on Wednesday, according to an official legislative tracker — also compels internet service providers to block access to content “which offends human dignity and public morality.”

It defines fake news as any unverified information that “threatens someone’s life and (or) their health or property, or threatens mass public disorder or danger, or threatens to interfere or disrupt vital infrastructure, transport or social services, credit organizations, or energy, industrial, or communications facilities.”

The new regulations are the latest step towards greater censorship of the Russian internet, once a relatively free-wheeling network where criticism of the government was, if not common, at least tolerated. Its passage comes ahead of an anti-censorship rally to be held in Moscow on Sunday, against a raft of new restrictions on the country’s internet.

Speaking to Meduza — a Latvia-based news site which focuses on Russia — lawmaker Leonid Levin, co-sponsor of the anti-“fake news” bill, said that when information poses a threat, “blocking is necessary immediately.”

“In less sensitive situations, the (urgency) might be defined differently,” he said. “This was done to give media outlets a chance to delete the information themselves, not to ensure that they’re blocked.”

RuNet clampdown

While Russia’s internet has face restrictions in the past, it has tilted hard in the direction of greater censorship in recent years.

Last month, lawmakers proposed separating Russia from the rest of the global internet, a move activists fear would involve the creation of a Chinese-style national firewall to censor and monitor all content passing in and out of the country.

According to state-run broadcaster RT, the law would enable the Russian internet “to operate independently from the rest of the world in case of global malfunctions or deliberate internet disconnection.”

“The autonomous system would ensure that Russia doesn’t face a total internet shutdown if relations with the West completely collapse and the US goes as far as cutting off Russian IP addresses from the World Wide Web,” RT said.

While the degree of US control over the core infrastructure which underlies the internet has reduced in recent years, as the technology has become more global, due to the amount of key systems based in the US, critics fear Washington could still move to cut off other countries from them in the event of a conflict.

Homegrown technologies have also come under pressure in Russia. Last year, encrypted messaging app Telegram was banned in the country, and an intense blocking campaign was launched against it as users attempted to bypass the restrictions.

In building up its internet censorship apparatus, Russia has turned to ally China for expertise.

According to a recent report by the US-funded watchdog Freedom House, in recent years, Beijing has taken steps to “propagate its model abroad” with large-scale trainings of foreign officials, provision of censorship and surveillance technology, and pressure on international companies to comply with Chinese standards even when operating outside the country.

“These trends present an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe,” Freedom House said.

Russia in particular has supported and boosted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s doctrine of cyber sovereignty, which calls on governments to take much greater control of their national internets, and seeks to legalize blocking and filtering content at the international level.

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