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A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Do Proposed Amendments to the Criminal Code Indicate that Freedom of Speech on the Internet Is Over?

Riding the recent wave of riots in London orchestrated on social networks, the Russian government is taking steps to strengthen its control over the dissemination of extremist thought on the Internet, aiming to prevent an updated repeat of last year's Manezh Square unrest. A new bill to impose greater restrictions on Internet blogs and social networks spreading hate speech may be used to censor vocal opponents of the current regime before upcoming presidential and state parliamentary elections, say analysts and human rights experts.

Although censorship on the Internet is common in Russia, bloggers have been largely out of the authorities' reach, in comparison to the country's heavily controlled mass media. Yet the new amendments, which were introduced into the State Duma last week, will lengthen prison sentences for bloggers and other users of social media to a possible five years, as well as extend already established legal provisions for mass media to include unregistered Internet media.

Prominent blogger Alexander Morozov and human right activist Lydia Yusupova said that the bill addresses a serious problem in Russia, but has a dangerous potential for misuse. Blogs and forums are overflowing with nationalist and other extremist commentary, they said, and free expression of seemingly innocent "domestic" nationalism can pave the way for neo-Nazism and other, more radical sentiments.

Nonetheless, the amendments will enable the government to restrict and intimidate bloggers, so that it will be very difficult to determine the fine line between legal and illegal actions, creating a possible "chilling effect" in the Russian blogosphere. "When security services monitor the Internet and blogs, typically they regard some innocent statement as extremist, which gives them a good pretext to censor bloggers," Morozov said.

Internet censorship has so far been more common in the Russian regions, where the local authorities have used current legislation as a tool to get rid of vocal opposition bloggers. In July of 2009, authorities used the publication of extracts from Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" as a pretext to close the Chronos Web site, which published articles on Russian and world history. The founder of the Web site, Vyacheslav Rumyantsev, claimed that the real reason for the closure was his criticism of St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko for her attempts to cut social welfare for the survivors of the siege of Leningrad during World War II.

In March 2009 Vadim Charushev, an opposition blogger from St. Petersburg, was forced into a mental asylum for several groups that he created on the VKontakte social network, including "I didn't vote for United Russia and Putin's puppet." Charushev claimed that he was intimidated into agreeing to treatment in the asylum.

"I have no doubt that anti-extremism legislation is the main instrument of the government to curb political speech in Russia and the new legislation is just greater proof of that," said Andrei Richter, professor of journalism at Moscow State University, recently appointed as the director of the OSCE Freedom of the Media office. "The definition of extremism in the law is too vague and wide-reaching to predict the reaction from law-enforcement."

Putting bloggers within reach of the law is urgent for the Russian government on the eve of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, said Rostislav Turovsky, an expert from the Center for Political Technologies, especially as relative freedom on the Internet has led to growing "negative sentiment" against United Russia and its leadership. Recent attacks on LiveJournal, Russia's largest blog network, have fueled fears among prominent opposition bloggers like Alexei Navalny that the government may shut down leading sites prior to the elections.

Yet political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky argued that the amendments have less to do with future elections than the continuing trend of increasing state control over the Internet. "I don't think the government wants to increase restrictions because of the elections," he said. "These are just legal measures intended to push opponents out of the current information system to maintain the current political system."

Theoretically, the Russian government can already look through private correspondence on the Internet if it poses a threat to national security. The system of operative investigative activities (SORM-2), introduced in 2000, is a special program allowing Russia's federal security agencies, such as the FSB, to force Internet service providers to install special devices to track down E-mail messages and private correspondence on social networks. When FSB officers couldn't gain access to Skype, Gmail and Hotmail to intercept private messages in April of 2011, it proposed outlawing these Internet services. The proposal was met with harsh criticism from the Kremlin, but the initiative fueled fears surrounding increasing government control over the Internet.

"The proposed amendments will complete, at least for now, the circle of ant-extremism law restrictions, by making the Criminal Code reflect as closely as possible the 2002 statute on counteracting extremism," said Richter. "We are witnessing a situation when extremism is being equated to the crime of terrorism, and even possession of extremist literature and materials is becoming illegal." He questioned the effectiveness of the new measures in stopping hate speech online because the problem cannot be solved "by criminal sanctions alone in the absence of public debate, and political and educational initiatives encouraged by the state."

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