Russia

Russia

Not Free
31
100
A Obstacles to Access 12 25
B Limits on Content 11 35
C Violations of User Rights 8 40
Last Year's Score & Status
33 100 Not Free

Overview

Internet freedom in Russia continued to decline during the coverage period, as the government repeatedly disrupted connections in the Republic of Ingushetia and, in 2018, imprisoned users for their online activities at a rate of approximately one every eight days. Prices for connections rose, as service providers passed on the cost of implementing the “Yarovaya Law”—which imposes onerous data retention requirements on providers—to consumers. Authorities continued their attempts to block the encrypted messaging app Telegram for violating the Yarovaya Law. The government also introduced several new categories of online expression that were grounds for both content removals and criminal penalties as it intensified its campaign against users’ digital rights. Finally, the government passed so-called “sovereign internet” legislation aimed at centralizing its grip on information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure.

Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Amidst protests, security services ordered repeated network shutdowns in the Republic of Ingushetia in both 2018 and 2019. After the coverage period, in August 2019, mobile and Wi-Fi connections were temporarily disabled in Moscow, also in relation to protests (see A3).

  • In May 2019, the “sovereign internet” law, which aims to rewire the Russian segment of the web so as to render it independent from the broader internet, was signed into law by President Putin. The law will take effect in November 2019 (see A3).

  • The government threatened to block virtual private network (VPN) services in March and June 2019, in a bid to tighten its extant online censorship regime (see B1 and C4). 

  • The government promulgated laws criminalizing “fake news” and insulting authorities in March 2019, while also decriminalizing an antiextremism statute in December 2018 (see B3 and C2).

A Obstacles to Access

Access to the internet is relatively affordable, and connection speeds are high compared to other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Penetration rates continue to increase. However, the ICT industry is concentrated, with a state-owned internet service provider (ISP) dominating the market. The government is preparing large-scale changes to its system of managing the web to enable the partial isolation of the Russian internet. Several network shutdowns were also reported during the coverage period.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 56

Internet access in Russia continues to expand gradually. According to the Levada Center, a nongovernmental research organization, the overall internet penetration rate reached 76 percent by the fourth quarter of 2018, when the proportion of Russians who used the internet daily or at least several times a week was more than 60 percent.1 Official government statistics provided to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2018 put the country’s internet penetration rate at over 80 percent.2

The subscriber base for fixed broadband internet connections increased by 1.8 percent in 2018, reaching 34.9 million customers.3 The subscriber base for mobile services shrunk slightly to 254 million customers (still more than 1.5 times Russia’s population).4 However, the share of mobile internet users increased by 5 percent in 2018, reaching 54.4 million users, or 61 percent of all internet users.5

Russia’s “Digital Economy” program, approved in 2017, aims to provide 97 percent of households with access to fixed broadband internet connections featuring speeds of 100 Mbps or more by 2024.6

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Inclusive Internet Index, 3G services cover 77 percent of the population, while 4G services cover 62 percent.7 The government plans to roll out 5G services, first in Moscow, starting in 2020.8

Publicly accessible internet connections in public institutions like hospitals, libraries, schools, and public transit are fairly widespread in large cities. In rural areas, the availability of public internet connections remains limited.

Connection speeds remain stable, with fixed broadband download speeds averaging 52.1 Mbps and mobile internet download speeds averaging 20.1 Mbps, according to May 2019 data from Ookla.9 These speeds place Russia ahead of many of its neighbors in the CIS, but behind most EU countries.

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 23

Despite economic strains and recent currency fluctuations, internet connections remain relatively affordable for most of the population. The 2019 Inclusive Internet Index ranks Russia 30 out of 100 countries in terms of the affordability of connections.1 According to official statistics, as of January 2019, the average monthly cost of a fixed broadband subscription was 548 rubles ($8.50), while that of a mobile internet subscription was 324 rubles ($5).2 In February 2019, the average nominal monthly salary in Russia was 43,000 rubles ($670).3 While people in the middle class and above can easily afford internet access, a significant portion of the population (14.3 percent as of early 2019) lives below the poverty line, making connectivity prohibitively expensive for many in that group.4

Robust competition in the ICT market is one of the most important factors restraining price increases.5 However, prices have gradually risen due to ISPs’ compliance with the Yarovaya Law (see C6), which requires that they install expensive equipment to record and store users’ internet traffic on their networks. ISPs have passed installation costs on to their customers. Another factor driving price increases was an increase in the value-added tax (VAT) rate from 18 to 20 percent, which took effect in January 2019. On average, internet prices increased by between 8 and 10 percent during the coverage period.6

A digital divide persists in Russia along regional lines, with users in smaller, more remote cities, towns, and villages paying significantly more for internet access than users in major urban areas. In February 2019, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media announced that 16,000 of the 18,000 settlements with 500 to 10,000 people had broadband access, as did 8,000 of 14,000 settlements with 250 to 500 people.7

There are no clear digital divides along religious and gender lines. Younger people are more likely to use the internet than their elders.

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 26

The government restricted connectivity to the internet during politically sensitive moments during the coverage period. It also took steps to centralize its control over the country’s internet infrastructure.

Authorities attempted to disrupt the internet in the Republic of Ingushetia, in the North Caucasus, on at least eight occasions in 2018 and 2019.1 In June, October, and November 2018, during mass protests over a border agreement that ceded territory to the neighboring Republic of Chechnya, three major mobile service providers intentionally shut down their mobile internet networks at the request of state security agencies.2 Article 64 of the Law on Communication obliges service providers to accede to such requests.3 In March 2019, during additional protests in the republic, mobile service providers twice disabled internet access.4 Fixed connections through the state-owned Rostelecom appeared to be disabled in March as well, although a company official called the outage an “accident.”5 The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), the ICT and media regulator, has received over 400 complaints in connection with these shutdowns, and one resident of Ingushetia sued the Federal Security Service (FSB) for ordering them.6 The resident lost his case in May 2019.7

After the coverage period, in August 2019, authorities briefly disabled fixed and mobile internet connections in parts of Moscow, amid mass protests related to local elections.8 Public Wi-Fi hotspots were also disabled. When pressed by journalists and users, service providers denied that their networks had been disabled.9 The government has remained silent on the issue. Despite these notable incidents, large-scale or nationwide network disruptions remain relatively uncommon.

The most prominent restriction on connectivity that has affected the entire population is the continued blocking of Telegram, the popular messaging app, which began in April 2018 (see B1). Certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services are also blocked. Since June 2018, the government has scaled back its attempts to block Telegram so as to avoid the blacklisting of millions of internet protocol (IP) addresses belonging to cloud services (where Telegram is hosted), which occurred in April and May 2018. In January 2019, Roskomnadzor stopped blocking most of the IP addresses of Amazon Web Services altogether, focusing instead on blacklisting the IP addresses of proxy services used to access Telegram.10 According to a December 2018 BBC report, Roskomnadzor began to test new methods of blocking Telegram, including via digital packet inspection (DPI) technology, in collaboration with some ISPs.11

In May 2019, President Putin signed a law aimed at achieving the “sovereignization” of the Russian segment of the internet (colloquially referred to as the Runet).12 Its basic provisions will take effect in November 2019. Provisions that will create a national Domain Name System (DNS) and a number of other elements of the law will take effect in 2021.13 The law defines the status of and requirements for the “critical infrastructure” of the Runet, namely international communication links and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). Their owners and/or operators are obliged to ensure the possibility of centralized traffic management in the event of external threats. In this regard, the law attempts to ensure the operability of Russian internet resources in the event Russian service providers are unable to connect to root DNS servers located abroad. The law also provides for the creation of a Russian DNS as an alternative to the global DNS maintained by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in California. Russian national security authorities have regularly criticized ICANN for being dependent on the US government and have often suggested delegating its functions to an independent international organization. Notably, the bill requires service providers to install special equipment that would enable Roskomnadzor to filter traffic. Such equipment, along with DPI technology, could bring about a new, more effective website-blocking regime in Russia, which currently blocks sites according to IP addresses. In April 2019, the head of Roskomnadzor, calling the bill a “formidable weapon,” declared, “I hope that, like the nuclear weapons that several countries possess, it will remain in a dormant state.”14 After the coverage period, Roskomnadzor reportedly asked ISPs “to provide information about physical internet exchange points that they and network operators use to exchange internet traffic” before November 2019.15

In 2017, Putin approved a new “Information Society Development Strategy,” which aims to guide ICT development until 2030. Like the “sovereign internet” law, the policy broadly seeks to increase the autonomy of Russia’s internet, signaling the authorities’ intention to wield greater control online. Among other things, the policy states that imported ICT equipment should gradually be replaced with domestically-made alternatives.16 It also directs officials to ensure that Russian “spiritual and cultural values” are represented in internet governance policy (see B3).

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 26

The ICT market in Russia, despite robust competition among ISPs, remains relatively concentrated due to regulatory and economic constraints. The displacement of local service providers by larger companies, as well as a number of mergers and acquisitions among these large players, particularly in the European part of Russia, has led to market consolidation. This enables Roskomnadzor to more easily secure the cooperation of service providers in carrying out its content-blocking procedures.

Telecommunications providers are licensed by Roskomnadzor.1 The cost of complying with data retention requirements under the 2016 Yarovaya Law (see C6) created a financial hardship for existing service providers and a deterrent to potential new entrants to the market. This cost of compliance is compounded by the government’s import substitution policy, which asks ICT companies to use hardware and software that is produced domestically.2 The looming possibility of further state intervention in the ICT sector constitutes an additional risk to operators.

On the consumer side, state-owned Rostelecom commands 41 percent of the fixed broadband market by revenue. The private firms ER Telecom and MTS hold 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively (as of 2018).3 The remaining market share is split among smaller, local ISPs.

The vast majority of the mobile market is controlled by four service providers. According to the leading provider’s 2018 annual report, four large private companies—MTS, MegaFon, VEON, and Tele2—control 99 percent of the market.4 In March 2019, Rostelecom reported that it would soon assume a controlling stake in Tele2.5 In 2017, two service providers lost major Western investors. Sweden’s Telia Company sold all of its shares in MegaFon to the state-owned Gazprombank6 and Norway’s Telenor liquidated its stake in VEON.7

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 14

Roskomnadzor regulates the ICT and media sectors and often fails to act fairly or transparently. Under the control of the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media, Roskomnadzor acts with limited independence. The head of the agency, Aleksandr Zharov, was appointed by executive decree in 2012. Roskomnadzor is responsible for implementing the many laws regulating the internet in Russia.1 For example, it carries out orders issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office to block online content deemed extremist or calls for participation in unsanctioned public actions, according to a law that went into effect in 2014. Roskomnadzor also implements the data localization law requiring that international companies store the personal data of Russian users within the country (see C6), as well as the Yarovaya Law, which requires service providers to store user data including text messages and phone conversations for six months (see C2), among other regulations.

In February 2019, Roskomnadzor announced that it would begin conducting unscheduled inspections of social media and communications platforms such as Facebook and other entities that collect personal data, based on appeals from citizens who have come forward with evidence that their privacy rights have been violated by such companies. The inspections are carried out after consultation with prosecutorial authorities.2

There are a number of ICT industry associations in Russia, including the Russian Association for Election Communications and the Association of Trading Companies and Manufacturers of Household Electrical Equipment and Computers, but they do not have a strong influence on policymaking.

B Limits on Content

The authorities censor a wide range of topics online, most often under the pretext of combating “extremism,” by blocking access to websites and web services as well as removing content. The unsuccessful attempt to block Telegram in 2018 inspired government agencies to explore new means of filtering content, which could lead to the wide-scale implementation of DPI and the introduction of higher fines for foreign technology companies that do not comply with existing censorship orders. Online outlets are subject to political and economic pressure to publish Kremlin-friendly content, and the government actively manipulates public opinion through state-controlled media and paid commentators.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 16

Russian authorities routinely restrict access to sensitive political and social content on the internet. Citing a range of justifications, they also restrict, or have attempted to restrict, many social media and communication platforms. According to the latest unofficial data, over four million internet resources are blocked in Russia.

Telegram, the popular messaging app, remained officially blocked in Russia. In April 2018, a district court ordered Telegram blocked for refusing to comply with the Yarovaya Law, which obliges the messaging app to provide its encryption keys to the government (see C4). Officials have repeatedly asserted that Telegram is used for terrorism-related purposes. Telegram employed various methods to overcome the initial blocking, including the use of alternate cloud hosting services. Roskomnadzor then targeted many of these services, including Alibaba Cloud, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure, resulting in extensive collateral blocking. At one point, over 18 million IP addresses were blocked, affecting online stores, banks, airline ticketing systems, news sites, and other social media and communication platforms such as Viber and Odnoklassniki (OK).1 In January 2019, Roskomnadzor signaled that it was easing its blocking regime as it announced that it had unblocked 2.7 million Amazon IP addresses.2 However, as of May 2019, over one million IP addresses remained blocked in connection with the Telegram order, according to a monitoring bot.3

Despite authorities’ efforts to restrict access, Telegram remains available to many Russian users. Most Russians continue to use Telegram without a VPN, since its developers have implemented an automatic proxy feature in order to provide unfettered access.4

Other messaging apps are also blocked. Zello was blocked in 2017 by Roskomnadzor for refusing to hand over its encryption keys under the Yarovaya Law and for failing to register as an “information dissemination organizer” under the Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection, which would grant authorities access to much of the service’s data (see C6).5 BlackBerry Messenger, imo, Line, and Vchat were blocked for similar reasons in 2017.6

Generally, websites featuring content that touches on a host of topics are also subject to blocking under the Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection and associated legislation. Forbidden web content includes: child pornography; the illegal sale of alcohol; illegal drugs; illegal gambling; calls for suicide; calls for extremist activities, riots, or unsanctioned protests; violations of copyright; violations of data protection legislation; defamation; information about skirting online censorship; anticorruption campaigning; certain religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses; and LGBT+ rights (see B3). The Ministry of Interior blocked 19,000 web pages containing information related to illegal drug use in the first nine months of 2018.7

In January 2019, Roskomnadzor blocked the Barents Observer, a Russian-language online news outlet based in Norway, in response to an article about a gay Sami man’s struggle with self-harm.8 Roskomnadzor first gave the outlet 24 hours to remove the article, which allegedly violates a prohibition against “calls for committing suicide” in Russia’s Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection.9 Around the same time, Roskomnadzor blocked another online foreign media outlet (the Armenian investigative journalism outfit Hetq) after it refused to remove several stories about a mobster with ties to the Russian government.10 Roskomnadzor justified the blocking under Russia’s Law on Personal Data.11

In July 2018, the authorities blocked the official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.12 In 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses was deemed an extremist organization and formally banned.13

During the coverage period, prosecutors worked to expand the range of content for which websites can be blocked. In 2018, prosecutors from several different regions successfully sued to block websites that sold food products banned under an import embargo.14 Regional prosecutors also initiated the blocking of various cryptocurrency websites, despite the fact that cryptocurrencies are not banned in Russia.15 The administrator of one such website, BitcoinInfo.ru, sued the government after a district court refused to hear his appeal. In April 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and the website was unblocked.16

Other efforts to resist the blocking regime through the courts have been less successful. In June 2018, Private Networks, the owners of TgVPN (a Telegram proxy service), sued Roskomnadzor, asserting that the regulator’s April 2018 decision to block its product along with Telegram was illegal.17 Although the initial lawsuit and an appeal have been rejected, the appeals process was ongoing at the end of the coverage period.18

Other VPNs have recently faced pressure from authorities. In a March 2019 letter, Roskomnadzor asked 10 VPN service providers to restrict users’ access to websites that are blocked in Russia.19 If they fail to comply, Roskomnadzor threatened to “limit access” to the VPN services themselves. After the coverage period, Roskomnadzor announced that only one company, the Russia-based Kaspersky Secure Connection, complied with its request.20 The regulator declared in June 2019 that the other nine VPN services would be blocked imminently, although they have remained accessible.

In March 2019, it was revealed that the two largest Russian ISPs, MTS and Rostelecom, restricted traffic to several nodes of the anonymous web browser Tor, along with the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) servers of ProtonMail, an encrypted email service.21 The case set a precedent for restricting access to encrypted services, as the FSB directly requested telecommunications providers to impose the block on ProtonMail without asking Roskomnadzor to first attempt to register the service as an “information dissemination organizer.” According to established procedure, ProtonMail’s refusal to register would have allowed Roskomnadzor to initiate blocking procedures.22 ProtonMail subsequently introduced special technical functions to prevent traffic restrictions in Russia.23

A 2015 law allows the government to designate foreign organizations as “undesirable,” which bars them from disseminating information (see B3). In 2017, the Prosecutor General’s Office blocked a number of websites of foreign NGOs that were labeled undesirable. The blocked websites included those of the National Democratic Institute, the Media Development Investment Fund, the Open Society Foundations, and the Institute of Modern Russia, as well as five websites connected to Open Russia, an NGO founded by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.24 In February 2018, Roskomnadzor also blocked the news outlet MBK Media, which is funded by Khodorkovsky, after a request from the Prosecutor General’s Office.25 After the coverage period, in June 2019, two US-based NGOS, the Atlantic Council26 and the Free Russia Foundation27 were labeled undesirable. The Atlantic Council’s website remains accessible in Russia, while the Free Russia Foundation’s site has been blocked. In addition, Canada’s Ukrainian World Congress was labeled “undesirable” by the Prosecutor General Office (also after the coverage period), and its website was blocked.28

Rules for data localization (see C6) are also used by the government as a pretext for restricting certain websites. In 2016, LinkedIn became the first major international platform blocked in Russia for failing to comply with data localization requirements.29 LinkedIn is the most notable recent case of blocking an online platform for noncompliance with data localization requirements. Roskomnadzor’s senior officials repeatedly declared the need to apply similar measures to Twitter and Facebook in 2018. However, the agency softened its approach during the year.30 In April 2019, both companies were fined 3,000 rubles ($45) for noncompliance with the data localization requirements.31 The evolving approach may be related to new amendments introducing turnover fines and other measures that would seriously affect the companies' revenues without exposing them to the threat of blocking. By the end of 2018, the amendments had been prepared by the Presidential Administration,32 and after the coverage period, they were introduced to the lower house of the federal legislature.

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 14

During the coverage period, Roskomnadzor frequently mandated the removal of online content or pressured users to delete content, including through the use of new laws that further constrain free expression in the digital environment.

In May 2019, a regional legislator removed a YouTube video about protests in the city of Yekaterinburg at the request of Roskomnadzor, which claimed that several of the video’s comments contained calls for extremism.1 Roskomnadzor also requested that regional news portal E1.ru remove two YouTube videos of the protests for the same reason.2 E1.ru’s legal team said the outlet would remove the offending comments rather than the videos themselves.

In April 2019, Roskomnadzor ordered a number of online news outlets, including Yarkub, to delete their reporting on graffiti in the city of Yaroslavl that insulted President Putin.3 Acting at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Roskomnadzor informed the outlets that the graffiti—and, consequently, their coverage of it—violated a new law against disrespecting the state, including state officials (see C2). At least five outlets complied with the order, but Yarkub refused.4 According to some reports, the case marked the first time the new law was used to remove content.5 In September 2019, a Roskomnadzor official disclosed that the law had been used to remove 30 pieces of content since its passage.6 The official also reported that 140 pieces of content had been removed since a law against fake news (see C2) came into effect in March 2019.7

In March 2019, Roskomnadzor demanded that the online legal portal Pravo.ru delete a report about Russian-born businessperson Rustem Magdeev, citing a decision by a district court in Tatarstan without specifying a court case.8 Also in March, Roskomnadzor demanded that the online business portal Roem.ru delete a story about a Russian freight service, based on a court ruling—again without specifying a specific case.9 Both sites complied with the regulator’s demands.

In December 2018, Roskomnadzor, acting on the request of the Ministry of Interior, blocked a Batenka.ru article that featured an interview with a heroin-addicted model. Batenka.ru subsequently deleted the article.10 Content related to illegal drug use is prohibited under the Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection.

That month, Roskomnadzor fined Google 500,000 rubles ($7,700) for the company's refusal to connect to the regulator’s registry of banned websites in order to filter search results (see B3).11 Two days after the Google fine, the Russian search engine Yandex began filtering search results in connection with Rozkomnadzor’s registry.12 Later, in February 2019, Google reportedly began to filter search results using Roskomnadzor’s registry, but in July 2019, after the coverage period, the company was again fined for failing to do so.13

During the reporting period, the right to be forgotten was still routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant. Russian law does not provide specific criteria governing the right’s application. In the spring of 2019, the SOVA Center, a Moscow-based think tank, challenged the right to be forgotten in the Constitutional Court. The court rejected the center’s complaint and refused to form clear guidelines for deleting and deindexing content under the right to be forgotten.14

According to the latest transparency report from Google, the number of content removal requests issued by Russian government agencies increased in 2018. In the second half of the year, the government submitted 11,137 content removal requests to Google, 62 percent of which were acceded to.15 The government had submitted thousands more requests in the first half of the year, before this report’s coverage period, which accounted for 75 percent of the total removal requests submitted to Google globally.16

According to Facebook’s transparency report, the company restricted access to approximately 3,000 pieces of content in 2018, many in response to requests from Roskomnadzor that cited violations of “local laws related to extremism, gambling, defamation, the sale of regulated goods, self-harm, and suicide promotion.”17 Facebook did not report either the total number of content removal requests it received from Russian authorities or the percentage of requests it acceded to.

According to Twitter’s transparency report for 2018, Russian authorities submitted 4,985 content removal requests (up from 2,505 in 2017), including court orders. Twitter acceded to less than half of these requests. In 2018, only Turkey submitted more content removal requests to Twitter than Russia.18

A number of court rulings pushed back against Roskomnadzor’s censorship regime during the coverage period. Notably, in January 2019, a court in the city of Novosibirsk discontinued a case against the online outlet Sib.fm that was initiated by Roskomnadzor. The regulator had accused Sib.fm journalists of “abusing the freedom of the media” in their reporting on a deceased minor.19 In December 2018, a court in the city of Kostroma overturned a fine of 4,000 rubles ($60) against the editor-in-chief of Kostroma.today, Kirill Rubankov, over reports on the arrest of Jehovah's Witnesses (a banned group in Russia). Roskomnadzor fined Rubankov for failing to note that the group is banned when the outlet had done so.20 In both cases, Roskomnadzor’s sanctions sought to encourage the removal of specific content.

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 04

Roskomnadzor justifies website blocking and filtering under a range of laws and regulations. The legal framework generally does not provide clear criteria for evaluating the legality of content, and authorities do not always offer a detailed explanation for blocking decisions. Website owners have the right to appeal decisions in court, but they are often given a short time frame to do so. Further, the compromised independence of the judiciary limits the possibilities for redress through the appellate process. Website owners can, in theory, also appeal restrictions at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), since Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, blogger Savva Terentyev, the first Russian user to be convicted of extremism for online speech (in 2008), appealed his conviction to the ECtHR, which ruled in his favor in August 2018.1 However, in 2015, Putin signed a law giving the Russian government the right to ignore ECHR rulings.2 As such, the ECtHR offers only a limited avenue of appeal.

The government gives several state bodies—including Roskomnadzor, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor), the Federal Drug Control Service, and, most recently,3 the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs—the authority to block various categories of online content. These entities can block content that touches on a host of political and social issues enumerated in the Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection, as well as amendments to the law, including new legislation prohibiting “fake news” and content that disrespects the state (see C2). Any other online content may be blocked by a court order if it is found to violate the law. Roskomnadzor typically handles blocking orders from other agencies in addition to the judiciary. For orders to block content on a website, Roskomnadzor instructs the hosting provider to issue a takedown notice to the website owner. Most website owners quickly delete the content in question rather than risk the blocking of their entire site. If the content is not removed, it is included on a blacklist, and ISPs must block it. If an order seeks to block an entire website, Roskomnadzor simply includes that website on its blacklist.

A law banning online content that encourages violence against schoolchildren entered into force in December 2018.4 The measure changed the procedure that ISPs must follow when implementing Roskomnadzor’s content blocking orders. Companies must now respond to them immediately (instead of within a day of receiving them). These requests may refer to content covered by any law, not just that which encourages violence against schoolchildren.5

ISPs are obliged to regularly consult the blacklist of banned websites, which is updated by Roskomnadzor. The means by which ISPs should restrict access to websites is not specified, so they could target IP addresses, domain names, or URLs. Often, the authorities do not clearly indicate the specific pages that they want blocked on a given website. The lack of precise government guidelines sometimes leads ISPs, which are responsible for complying with blocking orders, to restrict access to the broadest possible range of websites to avoid fines and threats to their operating licenses.

Roskomnadzor contributes to the disproportionality of Russia’s internet censorship regime, as illustrated by the blocking of Telegram. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the regulator was not authorized to block millions of IP addresses during its initial campaign against Telegram.6

According to Roskomsvoboda, which monitors online censorship, as of May 2019, approximately 4.1 million internet resources were blocked in Russia without reference to the decisions of either the courts or state bodies, representing about 96 percent of the total blocks in place. The remaining 4 percent—around 170,000 internet resources—were blocked in relation to decisions by the courts or state bodies.7 The extent to which Roskomnadzor effectively blocks websites is unclear, and some reports indicate that over half of the websites blacklisted by the regulator continue to operate.8

Website owners have been held liable for hyperlinks to materials from foreign organizations deemed undesirable.9 For instance, in March 2019, the NGO Environmental Watch in the North Caucasus was fined 80,000 rubles ($1,300) for providing information on the undesirable organization Open Russia on its website.10

Roskomnadzor has additional powers to issue warnings to organizations that are officially designated as mass media and are deemed to abuse their position.11 Article 4 of the Law on Mass Media indicates that such abuse can include, among other things, incitement to terrorism, extremism, propaganda of violence and cruelty, information about illegal drugs, and obscene language. If a media outlet receives two warnings within a year, Roskomnadzor has the right to apply for a court order to shut it down.

In October 2018, President Putin signed two laws tightening penalties for refusing to remove forbidden online content. The laws amend the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offenses to penalize those who refuse to stop the dissemination of banned information after a court order with a large fine, or imprisonment for up to two years for repeat offenders.12

In September 2018, a law introducing fines for search engines and website hosts entered into force.13 If a search engine does not deindex banned sites, it can be fined up to 700,000 rubles ($10,000). A website host that does not provide information about the owners of services that allow users to bypass government blocking (such and VPNs and proxies) can be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($4,500).

Providers of public internet connections, including libraries, cafés, and educational institutions are responsible for ensuring that content available to their users is filtered in compliance with Article 6.17 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which is meant to protect children from harmful content.14

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Laws prohibiting extremist materials and other content in Russia have contributed to self-censorship online, particularly in regard to sensitive political, economic, and social topics such as poor governance, corruption, the conflict in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, human rights violations, religion, and the LGBT+ community. The vague wording of laws that touch on online expression, the arbitrary manner in which they are enforced, and the general ineffectiveness of judicial remedies make ordinary users more reticence to express themselves online.1 The government’s crackdown on online news media, as well as social media, has also intensified self-censorship among journalists in particular. IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index observes, “Self-censorship has become an inextricable part of the journalism practice.”2 Electronic surveillance by the FSB, the police, and other state actors intimidate many journalists and ordinary users into self-censorship, as well.3

Despite the challenging environment, many journalists and ordinary users continue to test the limits of the authorities’ tolerance, particularly on Telegram channels.

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 04

Government manipulation distorts the online information landscape. Authorities use paid commentators, or trolls, and bots to influence online content. This issue came to international prominence following revelations that Russian trolls and bots had attempted to influence the 2016 US presidential election by manipulating online discussions and disseminating disinformation through social media.1 Well before that controversy, however, investigations had revealed that a “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency located in Saint Petersburg, used a network of trolls to attack both domestic and international targets.

Domestically, Russian trolls and bots have been observed commenting on news sites and on social media, usually to defend President Putin while smearing his critics, including journalists (see C7). They frequently interject to promote a Kremlin-friendly narrative when controversial issues arise. In November 2018, the digital rights organization Rosmomsvoboda revealed that authorities in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic had issued a public tender for a progovernment troll farm.2 The government of the city of Moscow reportedly employs the services of another troll farm.

Authorities sometimes manipulate discussions by ordering public-sector workers to engage in online astroturfing. In February 2019, for example, municipal workers in Krasnoyarsk were ordered to like and leave positive comments on social media posts that promoted the 2019 Winter Universiade, a youth sports competition, being held in the city.3 In 2018, state employees in a district of the Moscow region were instructed to like social media posts by local public officials.4

Outside Russia, Kremlin-linked trolls and bots have been observed sowing disinformation in dozens of countries, including the US, but mostly in post-Soviet countries. In March 2019, January 2019, and August 2018, Facebook removed thousands of inauthentic accounts, groups, and pages linked to actors in Russia.5 In October 2018, Twitter released an archive of over 10 million inauthentic tweets posted in Russia between 2009 and 2018, many of which came from the notorious Internet Research Agency.6

Authorities increasingly use the 2012 “foreign agent” law to smear organizations known to be critical of the government. The law, which was strongly opposed by Russian and international human rights organizations,7 requires NGOs that receive some foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined “political activities” in Russia to register as “foreign agents.” In 2017, Putin signed amendments to the Law on Mass Media,8 which allow the government to designate media outlets receiving foreign funding as “foreign agents,” thus requiring them to reveal detailed financial information or face fines (see B6).9 Outlets now considered foreign agents include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the local services of RFE/RL.10 These amendments were reportedly passed in response to the United States naming Russia Today a foreign agent. In December 2018, Roskomnadzor stated that it would review the BBC’s compliance with this legislation. The move came after the British regulator Ofcom found Russia Today in violation of several broadcasting regulations.11

On the Russian internet, these “foreign agents” must contend with a powerful array of state-run or state-aligned online media outlets that set the domestic agenda. According to survey data from the Levada Center, just 35 percent of Russians consume independent news outlets.12 Television, rather than the internet, remains the primary source of information,13 though trust in the media in general is low.14

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 13

There are a number of economic and regulatory constraints that limit users’ ability to publish content online. Onerous regulatory requirements and restrictive laws affecting online media have pushed some outlets to downsize, change owners, or exit the market altogether. Amendments to the Law on Mass Media that came into force in 2016 prohibit foreign citizens and organizations from owning more than a 20 percent stake in a Russian media outlet. As a result, foreign media holdings have left Russia and, in some cases, transferred ownership to Russian entities.1 According to Roskomnadzor, 821 media outlets changed their shareholder structure shortly after the amendments entered into force.2 In January 2019, the Constitutional Court upheld the ban on foreign media ownership, despite finding that the provision lacks clarity and specificity. In a lone dissenting opinion, Judge Konstantin Aranovsky stated that restriction reflects only the unfounded fears of the authorities.3

Under the Law on Mass Media, in October 2018, a court in Moscow imposed a record-breaking 22 million ruble ($360,000) fine on the publisher of the liberal magazine New Times (which also has an online presence) for failing to report a contribution from the Fund in Support of Freedom of the Press, a designated “foreign agent.”4 Unable to pay the fine, the New Times issued a crowdfunding appeal online; within four days, it raised over 25 million rubles ($385,000).5 In July 2018, a court in Moscow imposed a fine of 100,000 rubles ($1,500) on RFE/RL, at the behest of the Ministry of Justice, for not providing financial information to the authorities related to its status as a foreign agent.6

This provision on foreign agents has also been applied to the social media pages of NGOs. In September 2018, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Mari El fined the NGO Man and the Law 150,000 rubles ($2,300) for failing to label itself a foreign agent on its Facebook page.7

These fines limit the viability of independent journalism in Russia. Additionally, fines against individuals for posting a variety of content on social media that violates the law (see C3) limits their ability to publish online. Furthermore, people convicted of extremism or other offenses involving the use of mass media or the internet are legally barred from serving as editors-in-chief at publications.8

The government spent 82.9 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) subsidizing state and progovernment media outlets in 2018, further distorting the digital media market and making it more difficult for independent outlets to compete.9

Independent news outlets may alienate investors if they offend powerful interests. For example, in January 2018, the Russian news site Russiangate lost funding from its investors and temporarily closed down after it published an investigation into the real estate holdings of FSB head Alexander Bortnikov.10 The outlet’s website remained inaccessible in Russia as of the end of the coverage period.

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 24

Russia’s online information landscape is relatively diverse, although the range of news and opinion available to ordinary users has been curtailed by the government. As the space for independent print, radio, and broadcast media shrinks, online publications and social media have become increasingly important platforms for critical expression and civic mobilization. Several online resources, including Google, Yandex, the Russian social media platform VKontakte (VK), YouTube, and Mail.ru, are more popular than the largest television channels among younger urban audiences.1 A 2019 Levada Center survey revealed that while television remains the main source of information for most Russians, its audience is shrinking. For Russians under 35, the internet has eclipsed television as the main source of information. Approximately 56 percent of Russians use social networks daily or at least several times a week, with VK, OK, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter among the most popular platforms. About a third of Russians watch video bloggers. Only 1 percent of Russians consider Telegram an important source of information.2

Russian users can still access critical content online, but independent outlets increasingly publish from abroad due to the repressive environment at home. While Russians are still able to access a wide variety of foreign sources, many independent online media outlets within Russia have been forced to shut down in recent years due to government pressure, limiting the diversity of information available online. Recently, human rights organizations have noted the intensification of government pressure, with Roskomnadzor and other state agencies penalizing outlets that take an independent editorial line (see C3).3 According to a 2018 Levada Center survey, 1 percent of Russians frequently visit the websites of foreign media outlets.4

Some people use VPNs to circumvent censorship, but VPN usage remains low overall. However, more than 20 percent of Russians between 18 and 24 use VPNs.5

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 46

Despite sustained pressure from authorities, the internet remains the most versatile and effective platform for activism in Russia, facilitating efforts to confront propaganda, hold officials to account, and organize protests. However, the government continues to block mobilization tools, including Telegram (see B1). A 2019 report from the OVD-Info human rights project highlighted how the government restricts freedom of assembly online. Those calling for demonstrations on the internet may face criminal or administrative penalties. Apart from these legal measures, the government sometimes restricts connectivity before and during demonstrations, such as in Ingushetia in 2018 and 2019. Other tactics the government employs to constrain mobilization include hacking activists, monitoring activists’ social media profiles, placing informers in public or private chat groups used to organize demonstrations, targeting journalists who cover protests, and otherwise preventing journalists from gathering information about protests and protesters.1

After the coverage period, in July and August 2019, a series of mass protests erupted in Moscow after independent candidates were disqualified from running in municipal elections scheduled for September.2 Protests were organized online, and demonstrators used social media to amplify their message. Authorities attempted to clamp down on digital mobilization surrounding the protests by arresting online activists and journalists (see C3), disrupting the internet in some sections of Moscow (see A3), and instructing Google not to run ads promoting the protests.3

In March 2019, more than 15,000 people, organized by the unregistered Libertarian Party of Russia, staged a protest in Moscow against the parliament’s “sovereign internet” bill (see A3).4 Libertarian Party members and other activists used Telegram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media to organize the protest. It was one the largest protests in recent years and had great resonance both domestically and globally. Similar protests took place in a number of other cities. However, in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second city, a planned protest was banned by the authorities.5

That month, Roskomsvoboda launched a digital defense campaign to resist restrictive regulation of the internet, online media, and the ICT industry. During the campaign, citizens coordinated appeals to members of parliament in an effort to spur public debate on the “sovereign internet” bill before its second reading.6 However, despite hundreds of appeals, the bill was passed by the parliament.7

In December 2018, Dmitry Gudkov, leader of the Party of Changes, and his father, former member of parliament Gennady Gudkov, were fined for organizing an unauthorized public meeting to protest a landfill in Kolomna.8 A screenshot from a chat in Telegram, which was obtained by law enforcement agencies through illegal means, was submitted as evidence.

In December 2018, President Putin approved a law introducing stiff fines and potential jail time for individuals or organizations who encourage minors to participate in unsanctioned protests (see C2).9 Critics say the law is aimed primarily at opposition activist Alexei Navalny, whose rallies are popular with young people. Navalny is a prominent social media user and often organizes his rallies online. The first-ever prosecution under this law targeted a Navalny supporter who shared information about a protest on VK. He was found guilty in March 2019 and fined $470.10

Navalny was dealt another blow that month when 2019.vote, a website that provided voters with information about viable opposition candidates for the 2019 regional elections, was blocked by Roskomnadzor, which claimed that it violated the Law on Personal Data for allegedly improperly storing users’ personal data. 2019.vote was created by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.11 All mirrors of the website were also blocked, so that by the end of March 2019, more than 800 IP addresses associated with the project were blocked. An attempt to appeal the blocking was denied by a court in Moscow in February 2019.12

In September 2018, on the eve of nationwide protests against pension reform scheduled on the day of regional elections, Google removed paid advertising for the demonstrations from YouTube. The removals came at the request of the Central Election Commission, Roskomnadzor, and the Prosecutor General’s Office, which accused Google of interfering in the elections and violating the mandated period of silence in the 24 hours before the polls.13

Earlier, following the government’s efforts to block Telegram in April 2018, thousands demonstrated across the country against the restrictions and internet censorship more broadly.14 The Libertarian Party organized a rally in Moscow that over 12,000 people attended. The hashtag #DigitalResistance was used during the protests on Twitter,15 while Navalny livestreamed the Moscow rally on his YouTube channel.16 Prior to the demonstration, all Telegram users in Russia received a message from the app’s founder, Pavel Durov, urging them to participate.17

C Violations of User Rights

In recent years, authorities have substantially restricted user rights by passing laws that increase penalties for expression online while expanding the government’s access to personal data. More social media users have been arrested for voicing dissent and many face lengthy prison sentences. Despite decriminalizing an antiextremism article of the Criminal Code in late 2018, authorities adopted new laws introducing administrative liability for defamation against government officials and state symbols, as well as distributing fake news.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 16

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression,1 this right is subject to numerous legislative restrictions and is routinely violated. Censorship is nominally prohibited by the constitution. There are no laws that specifically protect online expression. Online journalists do not possess the same rights as traditional journalists (such as receiving accreditation at official events) unless they register their websites as mass media outlets. However, mass media outlets are subject to additional restrictions, such as avoiding the use of offensive language. Additionally, individual journalists can be designated as foreign agents if they directly or indirectly receive funding from abroad.2

Russia’s judiciary is not independent. The courts tend to side with the government, refusing to apply provisions of the constitution and international treaties that protect the rights of citizens. In 2018, the courts acquitted just 0.25 percent of defendants in criminal cases.3

Russia remains a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to free expression. However, a number of restrictive laws, coupled with repressive law enforcement and judicial systems, have eroded freedom of expression in practice (see C2).

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

Internet users in Russia can face civil and criminal penalties under a range of laws, the majority of which are contained in the administrative and criminal codes. The criminal code imposes penalties (usually in the form of fines) for defamation (Article 128.1); slandering judges, public prosecutors, or other members of the justice system (Article 298.1); and insulting representatives of the authorities (Article 319).1 Article 6.212 of the administrative code prescribes fines for “advocacy of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” while Article 148 of the criminal code3 bans insulting religious feelings, which is punishable by fine or imprisonment. Articles 20.34 and 20.295 of the administrative code prescribe fines for displaying extremist symbols (such as Nazi symbols) and distributing extremist materials, while Article 354.16 of the criminal code bans spreading false information about the Soviet Union’s actions in World War II. Articles 2807 and 280.18 of the criminal code punish online calls for extremism and separatism with up to five years in prison, while Article 2829—prior to being revised circa December 2018 (see below)—punished inciting hatred with up to six years in jail.

If a criminal case is opened against an individual for “extremist” activities, that person could be included on a list maintained by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (RosFinMonitoring).10 Those on the list are banned from certain professions, and their bank accounts can be frozen, even if they are not convicted. In a March 2019 joint report, the SOVA Center and Article 19 obserbed “extremely wide variation in those statements that may come under criminal prosecution” in cases related to “extremist” activities.11

Prosecutions of users for “extremist” activity on social media (mostly under Article 282, which prohibits incitement to hatred or enmity) peaked in 2017 (1,521 cases),12 before declining slightly in 2018 (1,265 cases).13 The vigorous enforcement of the law provoked a significant public backlash. In response, the parliament passed legislation easing penalties for violations of Article 282, which was signed by President Putin in December 2018.14 Those found guilty of making extremist statements online face fines or up to 15 days in jail (although criminal prosecution is possible for repeated violations within one year). Prior to the amendment’s passage, those found violating Article 282 faced up to six years in prison. The new legislation also has retroactive effect, giving authorities discretion to close Article 282 criminal cases and review all relevant convictions. In January 2019, a criminal case under Article 282 against the Crimean Tatar activist Ismail Ramazanov was terminated.15 Around the same time, a court in Saint Petersburg discontinued an Article 282 criminal case against Eduard Nikitin, who had shared political jokes on social media.16

However, the coverage period also saw the introduction and passage of a pair of new censorious laws that introduce harsh penalties for online speech. In March 2019, President Putin signed a bill that criminalizes spreading fake news online.17 Individuals or organizations found to have shared fake news face steep fines of up to 1.5 million rubles ($23,000), and if they do not remove the offending content, their websites can be blocked. Putin signed another bill in March that criminalizes spreading information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia” under penalty of fines or, for repeat offenders, 15 days of jail time.18 Defamatory content on the internet must be removed within 24 hours of receiving a notice from Roskomnadzor.

In 2016, the government introduced the Yarovaya Law, which altered nearly a dozen extant laws with significant ramifications for internet freedom.19 Among these changes were amendments to Article 205.2 of the criminal code, which impose prison terms of up to seven years for calling for or justifying terrorism online.20 These harsh penalties, along with broad wording in the amendments, are vulnerable to being abused to criminalize legitimate, nonviolent expression online.

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 16

Criminal and administrative charges are widely used to stifle critical discussion online. Individuals have been targeted for their posts or reposts on social media. Most arrests within the coverage period fell under articles 205.2, 280, 280.1, and 282 of the criminal code (see C2). During the coverage period, Article 205.2 (banning “public calls for terrorism, justification or propaganda of terrorism”) was most frequently used to prosecute online expression.

According to a report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, courts sentenced an internet user to prison approximately once every eight days in 2018. In 2018, 384 criminal sentences were handed down related to online activity. Of the sentences imposed, 45 involved imprisonment. In 2017, 411 sentences were handed down for online activity, 48 of which resulted in imprisonment. Despite this slight improvement, Agora found that internet users have recently faced pressure in more regions. In 2018, 41 regions were in what Agora calls “red zones,” where internet users face the greatest risks, compared to 26 in 2017.

According to the SOVA Center, the number of criminal proceedings for online and offline extremism decreased in early 2019, likely reflecting the partial decriminalization of Article 282 (see C2).1 On the other hand, according to Agora, 45 individuals had already been prosecuted under the March law that prohibits disrespecting authorities online by September (see C2).2

During the coverage period, many individuals were prosecuted for their online activities. In April 2019, a court in Novgorod fined a man 30,000 rubles ($470) for using an obscene phrase in a post on VK to describe President Putin.3 He was among the first people in Russia to be convicted under the new law against insulting state offices, officials, and symbols. Also in April 2019, prosecutors charged a woman in the Arkhangelsk region with spreading “fake news” after she promoted an unsanctioned protest on VKontakte.4 This marked the first prosecution under Russia’s new law against “fake news,” although a court later declined to hear the case.5

In March 2019, a court in the Primorsky Krai region sentenced a man to two years of probation under Article 280 of the criminal code, for reposting protest-related content from journalist and Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko’s Telegram channel in a pro-Navalny channel.6 In February 2019, an employee of Open Russia in the Chelyabinsk region was fined 10,000 rubles ($160) for conducting a webinar on how to avoid prosecution for social media activity. He was fined under Article 20.33 of the administrative code, which bars participation in an undesirable organization (such as Open Russia).7 Also in February 2019, a judge in the city of Severodvinsk fined a 63-year-old pensioner under the Article 5.26 of the administrative code (penalizing “deliberate public desecration” of religious symbols) for reposting pictures on VK from a group called “Atheist,”8 while authorities in the Pskov region opened an inquiry into journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva under Article 205.2 of the criminal code in response to a November 2018 online and radio story in which she analyzed an act of terrorism,9 alleging that she justified the act.

In December 2018, Tatar activist Rafis Kashapov received asylum in the United Kingdom,10 after authorities in the Republic of Tatarstan opened a criminal case against him in July for a series of allegedly extremist social media posts. Kashapov had previously served a three-year prison sentence for criticizing the annexation of Crimea.11 Also in December, a judge in the city of Sochi sentenced the editor of the independent news portal BlogSochi, Alexander Valov, to six years in prison and fined him 700,000 rubles ($11,000) under Article 163 of the criminal code, which bans extortion. Valov was accused of demanding payment in exchange for removing stories that negatively portrayed a member of parliament from his website. Much of the evidence against him was based on intercepted communications (including his emails) and statements taken out of context.12 Valov has been a staunch critic of official corruption.

In August 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the very first criminal conviction in Russia for a comment on the social network was a violation of the right to free expression.13

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 24

Anonymous communication is restricted in Russia, as are encryption tools.

In 2017, President Putin signed a law that mandates the blocking of VPN services that allow their clients to access banned content.1 In March 2019, Roskomnadzor began to enforce this law for the first time, sending 10 VPN services a request to connect to the Federal State Information System—Roskomnadzor’s blacklist (see B1).2 Most of the VPNs immediately refused. Other VPNs that Roskomnadzor had not sent a request to preemptively refused.3 By the end of May 2019, Roskomnadzor had not yet blocked any of the VPN services for refusing to cooperate.

In March 2019, ISPs blocked, at the request of the FSB, the STMP servers of ProtonMail, an encrypted email service, along with several Tor Browser relays (see B1).4 The FSB tied these two services to a series of anonymous bomb threats against hospitals and schools in the Perm region.

After the coverage period, SyTech, a contractor for the FSB, was hacked, revealing the existence of several programs aimed at limiting anonymous communication.5 One program, called Nautilus-S, attempts to deanonymize traffic conveyed through the Tor Project’s network. It has reportedly been active since 2012.

As of 2014, mobile phone subscribers in Russia must register with their official state identification in order to purchase a SIM card, limiting anonymity for mobile users.6

A law adopted in 2017 amending the Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection requires users of social media platforms and communication apps to register with their mobile phone numbers, further restricting online anonymity.7 In November 2018, the government approved new rules requiring such platforms to verify users’ phone numbers with the help of mobile service providers.8 If a user’s phone number cannot be verified, they will no longer be able to send messages. Furthermore, mobile service providers are now obligated to inform communication apps and social media platforms when a user cancels their contract. In those cases, users will no longer be able to send messages unless they reregister with a new phone number.9 The rules came into force in May 2019.10 Roskomnadzor interprets the rules such that they apply to both foreign and domestic platforms.11 However, by the end of May 2019, none of the platforms had complied with the procedures for user identification.

Lawmakers have also sought to limit the privacy safeguards of encryption tools. The Yarovaya Law mandates that online services offering encryption assist the FSB in decoding encrypted data. Though this is an impossible task for many service providers, such as those that use end-to-end encryption, companies that fail to cooperate could face a 1 million ruble ($15,000) fine. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has suggested that the impossibility of full compliance is a deliberate feature of the law, giving authorities leverage over the affected companies.12 The Yarovaya Law also requires online services to provide authorities their encryption keys.

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 16

State surveillance of internet activities greatly affects users’ privacy rights, and a number of recent laws have increased authorities’ powers to conduct intrusive surveillance.

The government utilizes the System for Operational Investigative Measures (SORM) for its online surveillance activities. Under current legislation, in order to receive an operating license, ISPs are required to install equipment that allows security services to monitor internet traffic. Providers that do not comply with SORM requirements are promptly fined and may lose their licenses if problems persist. The latest version of the technology, SORM-3, uses DPI technology, enhancing the ability of security services to monitor content on all telecommunications networks in Russia. When it takes effect, the sovereign Runet law will provide authorities with additional DPI capabilities. These new capabilities were tested after the coverage period, in September and October 2019.1

In March 2019, it became known that the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media would approve a plan in which law enforcement agencies will require SORM equipment to be installed on Internet of Things (IoT) platforms.2

Russian authorities are nominally required to obtain a court order before accessing electronic communications. According to Supreme Court data, in 2018, security services requested 529,486 court orders to tap telephones, open letters, and intercept electronic communications (the data are not disaggregated). Of these requests, 528,711—over 99 percent—were granted.3

The authorities are not required to show warrants to intercept communications to providers, and FSB officers have direct access to providers’ servers through local control centers.4 Experts note that there is no publicly available information about whether the government holds FSB officers who may abuse this power accountable.5

Leaked documents from the SyTech hack (see C4) revealed that the FSB considered a social media monitoring initiative, called Nautilus, as early as 2009.6 In May 2019, Roskomsvoboda reported that the government was soliciting bids for a social media and news media monitoring service that would perform “sentiment analysis” of posts on platforms including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, and VK, to determine whether they supported or opposed the government’s positions.7 In 2018, during the previous coverage period, the government awarded a larger contract for monitoring work of a similar nature.8

However, law enforcement agencies often conduct manual monitoring of social media, mainly on VK, the most popular and most cooperative social media platform in Russia. For example, personnel at the Anti-Extremism Center, known as Center E, both proactively “sort through shared posts on VK,” in the words of one former officer, and field complaints about “extremist” posts on social media from third parties.9

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 16

The legal system requires service providers and technology companies to cooperate with the government in its surveillance operations. According to the Law on Communications, service providers are required to grant network access to law enforcement agencies conducting search operations and to turn over other information requested by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee.1 The Law on Investigative Activities states that court orders are required to intercept communications, although exceptions can be granted if there is an “immediate risk” that a serious crime (defined as a crime whose penalties carry 10 or more years of prison time) will be committed or an “immediate threat” to national security is ascertained.2

In July and October 2018, the provisions of the Yarovaya Law that affect the internet came into force.3 Consequently, service providers and “information dissemination organizers” are now required to store the content of users’ online communications—including video, text, and audio communications—for six months, while metadata must be stored for three years by service providers and one year by other entities.4 Additionally, service providers must store users’ browsing history for 30 days.5 Companies must arrange a storage plan with the authorities and increase their storage capacity by 15 percent annually, beginning in five years.6 Under the law, the authorities will nominally be required to obtain a court order to access the data.

As of May 2019, 175 companies are in the register of “information dissemination organizers” (including social networks, communications apps, online dating services, file sharing services, and email platforms).7 The latest company added, in May 2019, was Match Group LLC, the owner of the popular dating app Tinder.

Activists accuse many technology companies, notably VK, of cooperating too closely with law enforcement officers, readily providing them with user data upon request. Agora points out that, in recent years, VK users have been the most-prosecuted group of internet users in Russia. In response to these allegations and public pressure, the company changed its privacy policy,8 but it continues to work closely with authorities.9 In response, some users have sued VK. For example, in March 2019, four of Navalny’s supporters filed a lawsuit with a court in Saint Petersburg, demanding 100,000 rubles ($1,500) from the social network for transferring their personal data to the Ministry of Interior without their permission.10

The data localization law enacted in 2015 requires foreign companies that possess Russian citizens’ personal data to store their servers on Russian territory, potentially enabling easier access for security services.11 Some foreign companies, such as Uber and Viber,12 have moved to comply with the law. The blogging platform LiveJournal, which is Russian-owned but was founded in the United States, transferred its servers from the United States to Russia in 2016, sparking concerns about censorship and privacy on the platform. Following the move, LiveJournal updated its terms of service to ban “political solicitation” as well as content that violates Russian law.13

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 15

Attacks on online activists and journalists are relatively common in Russia, and authorities do not often meaningfully investigate instances of violence.

According to Agora, journalists, human rights defenders, and ordinary internet users who criticized the government faced violence and threats in 59 cases in 2018, down from 66 in 2017.1

Just after the coverage period, on June 1, 2019, blogger Vadim Kharchenko was beaten and stabbed by unknown assailants while meeting with a whistle-blower from the regional police in the city of Krasnodar.2 Kharchenko, who posts political commentary and reports on his popular YouTube channel, said he was attacked in retribution for his videos.

In March 2019, Maria Karpenko, a former journalist with the newspaper Kommersant, announced that she was forced to resign because she also posted in a Telegram channel dedicated to local politics in Saint Petersburg, which was often critical of the local government.3 In May 2019, two politics reporters at Kommersant were forced out of their jobs in retribution for their online reporting, prompting the paper’s entire political reporting team to quit.4

In October 2018, an anarchist in Arkhangelsk set off a bomb at the city’s FSB field office, prompting a major crackdown on the anarchist movement, which particularly affected the 30,000 subscribers who follow the VK page of People’s Self-Defense, a popular anarchist group.5 Many users have been questioned by the police, and a few have been arrested in connection with various criminal cases. Some of those detained have credibly alleged that they were tortured.6

In April 2018, before the coverage period, investigative journalist Maksim Borodin, who reported for the independent news site Novy Den, died after falling from his balcony.7 The police claimed his death was either an accident or suicide, but Novy Den’s editor-in-chief rejected the official account.8 Borodin previously reported on sensitive topics including corruption, the prison system, and, most recently, the deaths of secret Russian military contractors in Syria. A number of NGOs have called for a full investigation into his death, which has not been forthcoming.9 Previous attacks and incidents of harassment against internet users have also not been investigated.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has expressed concerns about increasing, widespread threats to freedom of the press and the ongoing online harassment of journalists in Russia. In a special report published in July 2018, entitled Online Harassment of Journalists: Attack of the Trolls, RSF discusses the activities of online commentators working within progovernment structures who harass and smear journalists. According to RSF, trolls have created fake videos to discredit investigative journalists, including a Finnish journalist investigating Russian trolls who was portrayed as a NATO or American spy.10

Members of the LGBT+ community are frequently subject to online harassment, as well as violence. Since 2013, so-called “gay propaganda” has been banned in Russia, and in the years since, online intimidation and real-world violence against LGBT+ people has escalated.11 In December 2018, the administrator of an LGBT+ VK group was arrested in Chechnya; subsequently, authorities detained at least 40 LGBT+ people, and at least two individuals died in custody.12 After the coverage period, in July 2019, LGBT+ activist Yelena Grigoryeva was stabbed to death in Saint Petersburg after her name was included on a “death list” circulated on the internet by an anti-LGBT+ group called Saw.13

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 03

Cybersecurity remains a challenge, and cyberattacks against independent media and civil society organizations continue to inhibit users’ ability to access these resources. According to Agora, there were 20 cyberattacks in 2018, a slight increase over 2017, when Agora reported 15 incidents.1

In a July 2018 report, RSF noted that independent media outlets Ekho Moskvy, Kommersant, and Novaya Gazeta have been targeted by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.2 In recent years, journalists and civil society activists have been notified of attempts to compromise their online accounts, including Telegram and Gmail, suggesting a coordinated campaign to access their data.

In May 2019, for example, suspected progovernment hackers attempted to break into the Telegram accounts of Meduza’s correspondent in Yekaterinburg, the editor-in-chief of Znak, and several local reporters in the Ural district.3 These attempts coincided with popular protests in Yekaterinburg, which had attracted media attention.

In November 2018, the trial against human rights activist Vladislav Yusupov revealed that authorities had benefited from (and may have been responsible for) a September breach at Facebook that exposed the data of 50 million users. The activist received a message from Facebook stating that during the September 2018 cyberattack, an unknown third party had unauthorized access to his personal information (including his name, email, and phone number).4

Additionally, commercial entities are sometimes targeted by cyberattacks. In November 2018, the state-owned Sberbank suffered multiple DDoS attacks.5

Finally, government or government-aligned entities are sometimes targeted by cyberattacks, particular by other state actors. In November 2018, the US government disrupted the Internet Research Agency’s access to the web, as part of its effort to protect the integrity of the country’s 2018 legislative elections.6 Around the same time, the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, reportedly attempted to install malware in Yandex, the Russian search engine.7 The US government has reportedly hacked into Russia’s energy grid as well.8

In July 2018, President Putin stated that the information infrastructure used during the FIFA World Cup in Russia sustained 25 million cyberattacks.9

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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