Russian "Internet and Children" legislation : history, opinions and prospects
A 31 July 2012

Russian "Internet and Children" legislation : history, opinions and prospects

Draft Bill no. 89417-6, passed by the lower house of Russia's parliament, has raised of a lot of argument. On 10 July, Russian-language Wikipedia took its content offline for 24 hours to protest the bill, and the move was supported by banners posted on Italian, Bashkirian and Saha -language pages. Yandex, Vkontakte, Ru-Center and Livejournal were among prominent sites that also protested the bill in its current edition, and the topic topped Twitter's hash tag lists for a few days. In just two weeks that the draft bill was discussed by lawmakers, as many as 600 articles were published in Russian media on the matter, and 200 more abroad.

Those media publications, as well as numerous blog entries, often mention RAEC, both as an association and a community of experts that played an important part in legal and technical analysis of Federal Law no. 436 and Draft Bill no. 89417-6. We would like to further clarify our position on the two laws, present a number of important documents and remind of the course of events that led to approval of these legal acts.

TIMELINE

Federal Law no. 436

On 25 November, 2010, after two years of languid circulation in the State Duma, draft Law no. 155209-5 was, quite unexpectedly, returned to the floor in a second reading session. Only a month later, on 21 December, it was passed in both second and third readings, seconded by the upper house three days later, signed by the President on 29 December and officially published on the 31st as Federal Law no. 436, "On protecting children from information harmful to their health and development".

 As its coming into force was delayed, the new law attracted little attention from the Internet industry, although it provided for mandatory labeling of all materials on the Internet according to a special classification. It was only by autumn 2011 that experts first formulated their position on the norms introduced by the law, criticizing it as technically unenforceable, lacking clear wording and legalizing censorship in the form of content pre-moderation. On 21 December, 2011, after researching into international practices of Internet regulation, experts of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications presented a set of amendments to the law to Russia's Communications and Mass Media Ministry. In the first half of 2012, RAEC kept sending proposed amendments to the Duma committee responsible for communications, telecom and economic development ministries, and to the President and the Prime Minister of Russia.

Draft Law proposed by Safe Internet League

The Safe Internet League was founded on 7 February, 2011, a month after approval of Federal Law 436. The League's aim was to 'uproot dangerous content on the Internet in a self-regulation effort, in order to prevent introduction of censorship by the authorities". By June, the League helped apprehend the first suspected pedophile; and in August the country's largest mobile operators and Kaspersky Lab became members. Also last summer, SIL claimed it had been involved in "preparing amendments to current legislation" that would be submitted to the Cabinet and the Duma that autumn. On 14 December, 2011, the League announced a "draft law that will stop distribution of child pornography on the Internet".

On 21 December, the same day RAEC presented its proposed amendments to Law 436, our association also held a meeting between representatives of leading Internet companies and the Safe Internet League, at the premises of the Ministry for Communications and Media. Participants expressed fears of misuse of the law, describing blocking procedures as lacking clarity and transparency. Experts also said the law endangered information exchange and posed risks to hardware and software that keeps the Internet running.

Lawmakers and SIL join forces

While RAEC was busy addressing Duma committees and government bodies, organizing round table discussions of proposed amendments to Law 436 and the SIL draft bill (including panel discussions at Russian Internet Week and RIF+KIB forum), the two parallel lines met, and on 7 July 2012 a new Draft Bill no. 89417-6, was pot on the floor in the Duma. RAEC published its official reaction, and three weeks later presented a list of proposed amendments and changes to the new draft bill. RAEC welcomed some of the norms proposed by the draft bill, namely the part calling for disbanding the website labeling system that would require placing a banner (occupying at least 5 $ of the screen space) on every page to inform visitors what age group the content is for; and certain clarifications to the previously vague and imprecise provisions of the law regarding distribution of various types of information, as well as clarifying the textual and visual form of information product as provided by the law.

 However, some conceptual changes to the federal Communication and Information laws, as well as the Code of Administrative Violations, failed to find support in RAEC, the largest non-for-profit association of Russia's Internet industry, as they were clearly drafted without consultations with industry experts and the wider community. Criticizing proposed procedures as inefficient, RAEC suggests changes to the draft bill that would take into account both Russian and international experience, allowing to improve law-enforcement practices and make the functions of various state institutions, responsible for stopping distribution of illegal information on the Internet, more distinct. RAEC's propositions would also allow to better identify the range of parties that can be held liable for inappropriate implementation of measures aimed at protecting children, as well as to increase the volumes of blocked information. If these measures are not taken, RAEC experts believe that industry will face the following threats:

  • Numerous counter-suits against the government-authorized body related to mass closures of law-abiding web sources that do not have content banned under Russian laws;
  • Restriction of all Russian adult users' access to information that the law proclaims inappropriate for minors only;
  • Limited implementation prospects for the law because of unclear definition of website owners and hosting services providers, to many of whom the law does not apply, thus enabling them to evade responsibility;
  • Abuse, sabotage and unfair competition between Internet platforms, as result of too many types of materials that the law requires to be added to the Registry by a body assigned by the Cabinet.

Runet's reaction

Wikipedia's Russian-language page shut down for 24 hours in protest against Draft Bill no. 89417-6 "On amending the Federal Law "On protecting children from information harmful to their health and development" and other federal legal acts".

"Today, 10 July, the Duma conducts a hearing on proposed amendments to the Law on Information. These amendments can lead to introduction of extrajudicial censorship of the Russian-speaking Internet, including closed access to Wikipedia in the Russian language. The Wikipedia community is protesting against censorship that poses a threat to free knowledge that should be open to the entire humankind. We ask for your support in our struggle against the draft bill", a message on Wikipedia's main page read.

Many Internet resources, including Yandex, Vkontakte and LiveJournal, joined the protest campaign, and so did the National Television and Radio Broadcasters Association. Sharp criticism of Draft Bill no. 89417-6 also came from members of the Presidential Human Rights Council. On 14 July, the Pirate Party of Russia staged a protest rally against censorship of the Internet in central Moscow.

Current Situation

It took the State Duma only three days to approve Bill no. 89417-6 in all three readings, and twice - on 6 and 11 July, it passed with a unanimous vote. The lawmakers ignored the amendments that RAEC had suggested, as Elena Mizulina, head of Family, Women and Children Committee who helped draft the bill, confirmed. On 18 July, the bill was passed by the Council of the Federation (the upper house). After it is signed by the President and published by the state Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, it will come into force.


OPINIONS OF VARIOUS GROUPS ON THE BILL

Position of the industry

The position of most Internet companies regarding Bill no. 89417-6 has been expressed in RAEC's official statements, communiqué of a round table meeting of Russia's hosting providers and registrators, and many other documents. All the speakers agreed that some steps must be taken in order to ensure safety of the Internet: "Of course, something must be done to protect children from illegal information"; "The idea behind the draft bill is very noble, but if it becomes law in its current edition, it will cause the industry millions in losses, and kick the Runet back to the state it was in a decade ago ago, in terms of penetration quality and quantity", experts have said.
In order to maintain balance of law-enforcement practices, experts believe the following recommendations should be followed:

  • The list of content materials that can be blocked extrajudicially must be strictly limited to child pornography;
  • Territorial implementation of the Federal Law should be clarified;
  • The list of entries to be added to the Registry must only include Universal Resource Locators (URL);
  • The procedure for notifying Internet service providers and operators on adding an URL to the Registry must be fully and clearly described;
  • The term "places accessible to children', used in the draft bill, must be clearly specified as a closed list; otherwise, the term "collective access points" must be re-introduced, but also with a closed list of specific points.

In brief, our position on Draft Bill no. 89417-6 can be summed up in the following points:

  1. We support Article 1 of the Draft Bill that amends Federal Law no. 436 "On protecting children from information harmful to their health and development", because this article annuls the technically unfeasible requirement for labeling Internet pages.
  2. As for parts of the Bill that provide for amending Federal Laws "On Communication" and "On Information, Information Technology and Protecting Information" (articles 2 and 3 of the Bill's third-reading edition), Internet companies insist that amendments suggested by RAEC be considered, and on further discussion on the procedure of forming the Registry, or so-called 'black lists" of sites, with the participation of industry experts, ministries and government bodies, as well as international experts. 

Furthermore, it is important to note that there was no discussion of the Draft Bill 89417-6, and its articles that provide for amending Federal Information and Communication Laws, with experts and technical specialists, and that opinion of experts and technical specialists, presented to lawmakers, were not considered when the Bill was passed.

Russia's Internet industry continues to insist that these suggestions, presented by RAEC, be considered.

Some industry representatives, however, have supported the bill, believing it to be a "wartime mechanism above times-of-peace filtration", or a "sort of Internet 'OFF' button that can be used in dire situations".


Russian Internet in the 21st Century: Children's safety - RAEC's manifesto

In its resolution, the Russian Internet Forum 2012 expressed its position of a few important issues, including Internet regulation in order to ensure safety of children. Industry representatives drafted the "Russian Internet in the 21st Century: Children's safety", which was presented and discussed during February 2012 Safe Internet Forum, after which all interested parties were able to take part in further improvement of the text.

The main points of the Manifesto can be presented as the following:

  • Ensuring information safety of children and their protection from illegal content on the Internet must be a priority task, as well as finding a way to ensure unlimited and free access of all users to any useful information.
  • It is necessary to develop technology that would provide children's safety and limit their access to information that is inappropriate for minors; to promote media-literacy of Internet users, to facilitate removal of illegal content and content that breaches the rules of Internet sources.
  • It is necessary to further develop the laws in parts that regulate information safety of children on the Internet; with mandatory participation of experts. 

It is obvious that Internet companies, their associations and groupings (including the Safe Internet League itself) are taking important steps to ensure children's safety on the Internet without any interference from the government, achieving positive results.


State officials on the bill

Many state officials and lawmakers, including Mrs. Mizulina herself, have acknowledged that Federal Law no. 436 needs improvement. Russia's Ministry for Communications and Mass Media announced a tender for development of bylaws and amendments to the law, but this work turned to be pointless once the new draft bill appeared.

Many people have expressed their opinions on the draft bill that has raised so much public discussion. Remarks of most government officials and lawmakers were in favour of the bill and using the ‘need to protect’ children rhetoric. There are still some amongst them who approach the issue in a more reasonable way. Such as Communications Minsiter Nikolay Nikiforov, who, ever since his appointment, has tried to get involved in dialogue with the industry. "We think that the technical mechanisms proposed (by the draft bill) are far from being perfect", the Minister has said. Presidential Human Rights Council has also voiced in favour of further discussion of the bill, with participation of experts and technical specialists.

PROSPECTS

Only a few days after draft Bill no. 89417-6 was passed by the Duma and the Council of the Federation, some lawmakers commented negatively on the haste with which it was approved and started pointing out at the need to amend the bill. Most of those who still support it say the haste was due to the fact they didn't want the initiative to be postponed until Duma's autumn session, or 'get lost in the archives".

A working group is currently being formed, whose task will be to propose bylaws and amendments to the Bill no. 89417-6 before it becomes law on 1 November.