Russia Freedom of Speech: Internet May Be Next Censorship Battleground

To the surprise of few and the dismay of many, the battle for freedom of expression in Russia recently expanded beyond the traditional fronts of street marches and peaceful demonstrations and into a new realm – the Internet.

Pending approval from president-turned-prime-minister-turned-president Vladimir Putin later this year, a new law will broaden the criteria for websites that the government may censor for the alleged collective good of its citizenry. This includes sites that promote suicide, drug abuse, and extremist and dangerous material, as well as any content that could be grouped under the nebulous umbrella of illegal activity in the Federation.

If fantasy writer Ray Bradbury had not regrettably passed away earlier this year, this would be the apropos time to ask him at what temperature the World Wide Web becomes flammable.

The piece of legislation was authored by members of United Russia – the establishment "party in power" whose gain of a parliamentary majority in opaque and corrupt elections gave rise to demonstrations in the first place – so it was expected to be approved without much huffing and puffing, barring a cataclysmic onset of conscience or decency among members of the State Duma. And so it did.

Internet access has been relatively unrestricted in Russia until now, with a sizable majority of Russians (approximately 60%) having frequent and reliable usage. In some ways, it has become the last bastion of freedom of information and exchange. Online outlets have been the single most important facilitators of dissent in the last year, acting as loudspeakers for new bloggers, forums for open debate, and coordination hubs marches and activities. As such, it was perhaps inevitable that Putin would stake his claim on Internet content as part of this year’s campaign to hush dissident voices and tie the hands of opposition activists.

This most recent law follows in the disappointing footsteps of two other pieces of legislation. The first – passed by parliament earlier this summer – gave permission for the levying of absurdly disproportionate fines on protesters, making illegal and punishable any events and rallies that could harm citizens or law enforcers. 

Not all demonstrations held by the opposition have been peaceful gatherings, but many have been. In fact, forming a circle of protestors wearing white ribbons and carrying white balloons along the Garden Ring highway in Moscow bordered on almost too respectable and abstract. Under the new law, even such calm activities fall under suspicion. 

The criteria are loose enough to affect almost anyone involved in a rally and de-incentivize participation by raising the stakes on marginal dissent. Sadly, the average Muscovite may now be arrested for being a clueless peer-pressured bystander in an unremarkable, small demonstration with no shot of making it to thefourth back up list of the Sakharov Prize. In this environment, how is any vocal opposition expected to survive?

Such legislative action, paired with coordinated police raids on the apartments of several  renowned opposition leaders in June, stomped the constitutional rights of the opposition firmly into the ground with a heavy authoritarian boot. Earlier this year, the Mayor of Moscow granted monetary rewards to police officers who were particularly effective at dealing with demonstrators and maintaining order. These actions have elicited unfortunate comparisons to the beginning of Stalin’s terror in the late 1930s. The hashtag #Hello1937 quickly surfaced on Twitter, an ominous harbinger of the kind of relationship Putin’s second presidency was striking with the opposition.

The second noteworthy and infamous draft law has alleviated any fears that Russia would be left behind the questionable transformations of the Arab-Spring-turned-Islamic-Winter by labeling non-governmental organizations that receive foreign aid as “foreign agents.” In addition to upping the semantic hostility by using a term that is synonymous with "spy" in Russian, the law would also impose substantial practical limitations for NGO funding and activity. This delegitimizing measure specifically targets opposition heads, bloggers and vocal dissidents, and NGOs that work to highlight the unwelcome issues of a free press, transparent elections, judicial reform, et al.

All three pieces of legislation have been bolstered by the government’s stated higher calling to transparency, democratic “evolution,” and the protection of its citizens. But their  real motives - to widen the gap between those who dissent vocally and the acquiescent and silent majority - are poorly camouflaged.

The reality that few within Russia have expressed surprise at the recent crackdown is telling. It is conceivable to say that the government has won recent battles against the opposition, but the cumulative outcome of the war has yet to be decided. In reality, however, multiple polls have shown that the average Russian remains conflicted about democracy and, although deeply disappointed in his personal reality, unclear on how a freer media or more honest election would directly improve his lot. 

Perhaps most importantly, the nation’s historical narrative has stripped its population of idealism, especially as the failed “democratic” experiments of the early 90s created further economic disparity and did little to alleviate the corrupt and bureaucratic nature of government at all levels. Although those who have expressed dissent in Moscow and St. Petersburg express a yearning for democratic reform – or at the very least the cessation of the sham known as the Putin-Medvedev tandem – this dissent is far from widespread and representative of the Russian public.

In some ways, this historical moment marks a rare opportunity in Russia. Dialogue stands to be open, freedoms stand to be won back, and the fist of corruption and power might just be unclenched. But if those seeking change and willing to sacrifice as the battleground becomes steeper are not met with wider vocal support from other segments of Russian society, the war may already be lost.