A new Russian law went into effect Friday that further tightens already restrictive free speech rights on the Internet, one of the few places where Russian citizens are able to express dissent again President Vladimir Putin and other officials. The so-called "law on bloggers" forces any website that publishes posts or articles that receive more than 3,000 readers each day to register with the government.
These bloggers must provide their true identities, a worrisome stipulation in Russia, where the Putin administration has already shut down a number of opposition websites and news outlets. It also comes only weeks after Putin authorized another law aimed at curbing social media data storage in the U.S., an action that will have a major impact on Twitter and Facebook.
Alexander Zharov, the head of Russia’s media watchdog, told Russian news outlets that there will be no national “census of bloggers,” as quoted by the Moscow Times, although he stressed that, by targeting almost all websites of note, the law will “de-anonymize popular websites.”
Bloggers will now be held to the same standard of mass media outlets: Writers are forbidden from using foul language and spreading false information. The punishment for violating this rule is much more stringent than it is for mass media broadcasters: Violators make themselves vulnerable to a fine of between 10,000 and 50,000 rubles (US $285-$855) and blacklisting from the Russian Internet.
The concept of false information is a key point, with journalists able to access official sources and check facts, two privileges that few independent Russian voices have. Russian bloggers, consequently, could conceivably publish a piece of true information that's offensive to the government but, when pressed, be unable to prove it.
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Also banned is the “publication of information intended to defame specific categories of citizens” based on religion, profession or political attitudes. The vague notion of “extremist materials” is prohibited, as well, with an editorial in the English language Moscow Times comparing the new legislation to George Orwell’s “1984.”
“In best newspeak tradition, the law does not state how the number of daily readers will be determined, and no one knows how to do it -- especially on social networks where the number of visits to a page is not public,” the paper wrote earlier this year.
“But the government has an easy way around this. Internet providers and the owners of social networks will be required to provide this information to the authorities so that bloggers can be entered into a special state registry, which will contain detailed information about them, such as phone numbers and home addresses.”
Russian Internet companies have vocally opposed the law, with the popular Web service Yandex refusing to continue publishing statistics on blogs and LiveJournal no longer informing users if their readership surpasses 2,500.
“It’s about creating a situation where big brother is watching you,” popular blogger Anton Nosik told the Guardian. He considers the new legislation unconstitutional. “You are part of a list, you are being watched, being observed, you are being served notices and could even serve a criminal sentence if you choose to speak out.”