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Russia: New Legislation Restricts Anonymity of Internet Users

(Sept. 5, 2017) On July 29, 2017, the President of the Russian Federation signed two recently adopted federal laws that prohibit the anonymous use of online messenger applications and detail the procedure for blocking access to websites recognized by the Russian authorities as prohibited. (Law on Information and Information Technologies Has Been Amended, KREMLIN.RU (official website of the Russian Federation President) (July 31, 2017) (in Russian).)   Both acts amend the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Information Protection (FLIITIP).  (Federal Law No. 149 FZ of July 27, 2006, CONSULTANT.RU (in Russian).)

Law No. 276-FZ Amending the FLIITIP

The first new act, Federal Law No. 276-FZ of July 29, 2017, on Amendments to the FLIITIP, prohibits owners of information and telecommunications networks and information resources (websites, website pages, information systems, and programs for computers and electronic equipment) to provide access to websites and information resources that are designated as “resources with restricted access” by the Federal Service for Supervision in the Field of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor).  The Law requires Roskomnadzor to create a national information database of online resources and services to which access is prohibited in Russia.  Internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to identify those owners of resources who do not block access to prohibited online resources and report them to the Roskomnadzor within three days.  Operators of online search engines are required to block links to websites included in the database of prohibited online resources.  If the owner of the network or information resource continues to ignore the requirement to block access to restricted websites, its Internet connection can be terminated by the ISP within 24 hours.  The Law will go into effect on November 1, 2017.  (Federal Law No. 276-FZ of July 29, 2017, on Amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Information Protection, ROSSIISKAIA GAZETA (July 30, 2017) (official publication, in Russian).)

According to a Forbes report,  the amendments mean that there will be a total ban on the use of Internet proxy servers, including virtual protection networks (VPNs), which have often been used to access websites blocked by the government authorities or to see other online content not approved by the state.  (Janet Burns, Russian Laws Will Ban VPNs and Force Chat Users to Register, Giving Censors an Edge, Forbes (July 30, 2017).)

Law No. 241-FZ Amending Articles 10 (1)1 and 15 (4)4 of the FLIITIP 

The second new act, Federal Law No. 241-FZ of July 29, 2017 on Amendments to Articles 10 (1)1 and 15 (4)4 of the FLIITIP, prevents the anonymous use of instant messaging online. According to this Law, ISPs can serve only those users who can be identified by their subscriber number, based on the identification agreement concluded between the service provider and the communications operator. Also, ISPs are required to restrict the user’s access to the application within a day if they suspect that messages contain information that violates Russian legislation. ISPs that fail to meet this requirement will be blocked by the authorities. The Law will come into force on January 1, 2018. (Federal Law No. 241-FZ of July 29, 2017 on Amendments to Articles 10(1) and 15(4) of the Federal Law on Information, Information Technology and Information Protection, Internet-Portal of Legal Information (July 30, 2017) (official publication, in Russian).)

Related Developments

Reportedly, the Roskomnadzor is drafting a regulation that would establish the registration of owners and operators of information networks and search engines.  Only registered owners and operators would have access to the  database of prohibited resources.  Owners of search engines, VPNs, and proxy servers would receive daily information on resources added to the list of banned content and would be required to block access to such resources within one day.  (Roskomnadzor Explained How VPNs Will Receive Information on Prohibited Websites, NEWSRU.COM (Aug. 25, 2017) (in Russian).)

Views on Russian Restrictions on Internet Access

Russian authorities have repeatedly stated that Internet restrictions are needed to prevent “the spread of extremist content online.” (Burns, supra.)  According to the Chairman of the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee, Leonid Levin, the government is seeking not “to impose restrictions on law-abiding citizens but [only] to block access to ‘unlawful content.’”  (Id.)  However, human rights advocates are concerned that “these laws negatively affect the ability of the Russians to freely access and exchange information online.” (Russia: New Legislation Attacks Internet Anonymity; Repeal Laws Threatening Freedom of Expression Online, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Aug. 1, 2017).)

According to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report, recently Russian authorities have unjustifiably blocked thousands of websites and prosecuted Internet users for expressing their views on such “sensitive” topics as LGBT issues, Russia’s intervention in Syria, and the armed conflict in Ukraine. (Online and on All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression, Human Rights Watch (July 18, 2017).)

This item was written with the assistance of Foreign Law Consultant Olena Yatsunska.