Russia’s lower house of parliament , the State Duma, adopted a bill on December 23 that bans “censorship” of Russian media by Internet portals and allows Russian communications regulator Goskomnadzor to block access to these portals from within Russia for such censorship. Among other foreign outlets, the legislation, once signed by President Vladimir Putin, will apply to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Under the bill’s provisions, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office would agree with the Russian Foreign Ministry to ban a foreign-owned Internet portal if the two institutions decide that the portal has artificially lowered Russian media content’s ranking in its search results or removed the content altogether without cause.
Media regulator Roskomnadzor can block an offending party either partly or in full for “discrimination toward the content of Russian mass media.” A list of foreign sites that supposedly violated the “fundamental human rights and freedoms” of Russian citizens will be compiled. Administrative fines can also be assessed.
Roskomnadzor declared that the bill will defend the right to freedom of information in Russia, but the country’s own international record on this count routinely prompts more criticism than praise. In 2020, Russia ranked 149th among 180 countries for press freedom in a survey compiled by the U.S. media-rights advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders.
The “anti-censorship” bill’s passage comes two days after the release of a recording on YouTube that demonstrated the U.S. social network’s ability to magnify the voices of Kremlin critics.
Aleksei Navalny’s December 14 phone conversation with a supposed member of the Federal Security Service team allegedly dispatched in August 2020 to poison him in the city of Tomsk has received well over 17 million views on YouTube since its release on December 21.
Sponsors of the December 23 bill maintain, however, that they are addressing discrimination writ large.
The legislation, first proposed in November 2020, also applies to discrimination based on ethnicity, language, origins, economic status, profession, place of residence and work, attitude toward religion, and “in connection with” foreign states’ political and economic sanctions against Russia or Russian citizens.
The fast-tracked bill was introduced into the Duma by the chairman of the Information Policy Committee, Aleksandr Khinshtein, a member of the ruling United Russia party, and three of his deputies, who believe non-Russian online outlets have treated Russia unfairly.
Roskomnadzor claims that 24 “censorship” cases involving Russian mass media occurred in 2020. The state-run RT (Russia Today) television network, RIA Novosti news agency, the TV broadcaster Krym 24 (Crimea 24), and TV host Vladimir Solovyov of government-run Rossia-1 have all made such complaints in the past.
Targeted outlets, including YouTube’s owner, Google, have denied the charges of discrimination.
In response to Solovyov’s demand that Google, owner of YouTube, restore his Solovyov LIVE channel to YouTube Trending, the U.S. company responded that algorithms, based on the popularity of a video compared with that of other videos, alone determine which channels are considered to be trending.
Roskomnadzor has taken aim at other social networks as well.
The media regulator most recently attempted to shut down the popular messaging app Telegram within Russia – another popular forum for independent voices on Russia’s current affairs -- but then reversed course in November and set up its own channel on Telegram.
It also has attempted to convince Facebook and Twitter – so far unsuccessfully – to place within Russia their servers with information related to users who are Russian citizens.
One Russian Internet expert predicted in November that the Duma’s bill to punish “censorship” will meet with similar failure.
For one, Russians depend economically on reliable access to social networks such as YouTube, commented Mikhail Klimaryev, executive director of the Internet Defense Society, a cyber-rights advocate.
Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, “YouTube is one of the ways to earn money for a very large number of people,” including bloggers, stores, and educational institutions, noted Klimaryev. “There are very many people whose activity is tied to YouTube. If they’re deprived of that opportunity to work, I don't think that this will be good for someone."
The Russian government and groups sympathetic to the Putin administration themselves use YouTube to promote content that touts the Kremlin’s own policy lines.
Information Policy Committee Chairman Khinshtein has told Russian media that he counts on prosecutors and the Foreign Ministry making “very measured and very accurate” use of the bill’s powers.
He expressed the hope that that use will not lead to a blockade of YouTube in Russia.
-With additional reporting by Interfax