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Russia Forces Its Popular Bloggers to Register -- Or Else

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Businessmen watch a television broadcast of Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaking at the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on May 23, 2014. Close

Businessmen watch a television broadcast of Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaking... Read More

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Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Businessmen watch a television broadcast of Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaking at the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on May 23, 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking names. Potentially thousands.

The former KGB colonel, concerned with how social media can be used to undermine his authority, this month expanded his regulation of media to the blogosphere, requiring those with at least 3,000 daily readers to register their real names and contact information. So far, about 580 bloggers in Russia have applied to register with the country's communications regulator Roskomnadzor.

The government says this is needed so it can remove inaccurate or defamatory information on the Internet. But some bloggers fear it will limit free speech, allow Putin to close down blogs he doesn't like and give him an excuse to block sites such as Twitter in the future.

The total number of bloggers who are required to register may be several thousand. Roskomnadzor may shut down the accounts of those who don't follow the new rule. Roskomnadzor sent Eduard Limonov and Boris Akunin, who are known for their opposition to the government, requests to register their blogs, according to the daily newspaper Izvestia.

Blocking 'Extremist' Content

Some bloggers won't rush to register, deeming the new legislation excessive. The constitution allows free expression of opinion without any need for registration, argues Anton Nosik, a well-known Russian blogger and Internet entrepreneur.

The Kremlin already has the power to block undesirable content online. A law that took effect in February allowed the government to close webpages without a court decision. The General Prosecutor's Office simply has to declare the material "extremist."

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who used to criticize Putin and reveal corruption among his inner circle, was the first victim of that law when his blog on LiveJournal.com was shut in March. Although LiveJournal has its servers in the U.S., it’s controlled by Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut and readily follows the Kremlin rules.

What About U.S. Social Media?

The new registration law raises the question: What happens to Russian-language blogs on Facebook, Twitter or Google+? Their user statistics aren't publicized. At most you can see the number of friends or followers, which isn’t the same as daily audience, which the Russian legislation used as its criterion for popular bloggers. Foreign Internet companies could argue they aren't subject to local laws, as long as their social media services aren’t based in Russia and the servers aren't located in the country. And they may not view their users publishing photos of palaces owned by Putin's friends as possibly extremist or a violation of a person's privacy rights.

This is exactly what Navalny is doing on Twitter now and his account hasn't yet been shut. If he doesn’t register as a blogger nor comply with Russian rules, Roskomnadzor could in theory go after Twitter.

Nosik, the Russian blogger, says the latest law creates a way for the government to block foreign Internet services such as Twitter in Russia, although there would be big repercussions from that move. Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, didn't to comment.

“It’s a political question and –- when the time comes -- it is up to the only man to decide upon,” Nosik wrote in his blog.

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