Photographer: Image Source via Getty Images

Putin vs. the Internet: The Laws That Matter

Staying safe on Russia’s Internet is a tricky business.

A new law in force in Russia from Sept. 1 is intended to force foreign Internet firms to maintain local servers to handle data on Russian citizens. 

Russia says it’s aimed at protecting the privacy of its people, but the law has been criticized by activists and rights groups as the latest squeeze on Internet freedom.

It’s the latest in a series of laws put into place since Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in 2012. Here are some of the other key pieces of legislation:

Nov. 2012: Content harmful to children

This law was nominally designed to allow the blacklisting of sites hosting child pornography and the promotion of drugs or suicide. Critics of the law, who feared it could be abused, were accused by lawmakers of belonging to the “pedophilia lobby.”

It was used to block GitHub for many hours after mass media regulator Roskomnadzor found a single joke related to suicide. Similarly it was used to blacklist Wikipedia over an article about a marijuana variant deemed to give too much information. 

Marijuana Users

Any content glorifying the use of drugs is seen as harmful to children and can lead to a website being blacklisted and blocked.

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

June 2013: LGBT ‘propaganda’

This Russian federal law was designed to protect children from content – online or offline – promoting non-traditional sexual relationships or spreading “a distorted conception of the equivalence between traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships.”

It was used to convict Elena Klimova, who ran a teen LGBT support group on Facebook and Vkontakte, although the charges were later dropped. It also meant that the video game The Sims 4, which allows same-sex in-game relationships, got an 18+ rating when it launched in Russia.

A man wears a mask depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing makeup, during the 19th edition of the 'Belgian Pride' event, a gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, on May 17, 2014 in Brussels. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ ** Belgium Out **        (Photo credit should read LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ/AFP/Getty Images)
As a result of the clampdown on the LGBT community, Putin tends to be a popular character to make fun of at Gay Pride.
Photographer: LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ/AFP/Getty Images

August 2013: Online piracy

Until 2012 the Russian Internet was rife with pirated movies and music, much to the consternation of content creators.  Russian regulations now mean websites hosting pirated content can be blacklisted by Internet service providers if they don’t comply with takedown requests within 72 hours.

July 2014: Extremist content

To combat terrorism, Russia banned extremist content or any online attempts to organize an “extremist” event. The law comes with severe penalties including a 500,000 ruble fine ($7,500) or eight years behind bars. 

This law has been invoked to block opposition websites for interviewing Ukrainian resistance fighters and satirical website Lurkmore for hosting an article about the history of Molotov cocktails. It was also used to block Wayback Machine over a single page about the “theory and practice of partisan resistance.”

A Pro-Russian Militant Holds a Molotov Cocktail in Mariupol

An article about the history of the Molotov cocktail was enough to block one site for extremism.

Nikolai Ryabchenko/AP

Aug. 2014: Blogger anonymity

Bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers are forced to register with the regulator, ensuring that opposition bloggers couldn’t remain anonymous.  Some bloggers and platforms created ways for individuals to mask the feature that counts page visits to try and get round the law. 

May 2015: ‘Undesirable organisations’

This law builds on legislation requiring that NGOs receiving funding from abroad engaging in “political activity” be branded “foreign agents” and subject to intrusive inspections and restrictions. 

The law about “undesirable organizations” goes further, banning blacklisted groups from the country. The first company to be placed on the list was American pro-democracy foundation The National Endowment for Democracy. “We will never tolerate mentoring and open interference in our affairs by foreign structures,” said Russia's Foreign Ministry. 

Media outlets who reproduce any material published by these organisations can be prosecuted. 

Sept. 2015: Storing Russian user data abroad

From Sept. 1 foreign internet companies must store the personal data of users from Russia within the country’s borders. This creates a massive challenge for U.S.-based companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, which tend to store data on servers outside of the country.

Russia insists the law is motivated by a desire to protect the privacy of its own citizens in the wake of revelations about the extent of US National Security Agency monitoring. By moving servers to Russia, though, companies risk increased surveillance by Russian agencies. Russian law compels ISPs to install spying “black boxes” as part of its monitoring program. 

Report Underscores Shift In Debate Over Personal Data Privacy

The revelations of U.S. mass surveillance as revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have been used to justify the data localization legislation.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“The Kremlin may force global companies to provide the Russian secret services with the same access. But you can only do this if you have servers on Russian soil,” explains journalist Andrei Soldatov.

Jan. 2016: Links politicians don’t like

Russia’s version of the EU’s “right to be forgotten” law will allow individuals to make search engines like Yandex and Google delete links to certain stories about them or face a fine of 3 million rubles ($45,000). 

Unlike the EU version of the law, public figures can request links be removed from search results and the wording is vague. A link could be deemed “outdated” if a civil servant no longer holds a post in question, for example.

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