Last December, the blogging platform LiveJournal — purchased in 2007 by the Russian company SUP Media — finally relocated its data servers from California to Russia.
Calling attention to the shift, Anton Nossik (a former advisor to SUP Media) declared, “LJ’s servers have moved ‘closer’ not to its authors and readers, but to those who want to monitor them.”
This Tuesday, April 4, LiveJournal released an updated user agreement, revealing what steps it’s taking to adjust to its new existence as a blogging platform in full compliance with Russia’s stifling Internet laws. In particular, users like Nossik have expressed concerns that the website’s data will now be fully accessible to Russian police snooping, in accordance with recently enacted “anti-terrorist” legislation.
No more “political solicitation”
One of the most chilling revisions in the new terms of service is Article 9.2.7, which forbids users from posting “political solicitation materials” without specific permission from LiveJournal.
Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer specializing in Internet issues with the Agora Human Rights Association, told RuNet Echo that Russian federal law doesn’t actually use the term “political solicitation,” and regulates only “campaign agitation,” imposing administrative liability in just some cases.
“These [legal] procedures are absolutely not connected to the LiveJournal terms of service,” Gainutdinov explained.
LiveJournal published two versions of its user agreement: one in Russian and another in English, which begins with a disclaimer that reads, “This translation of the user agreement is not a legally binding document,” followed by a hyperlink to the “valid” Russian document. LiveJournal added no disclaimer to the Russian version.
According to Gainutdinov, this probably means the company is simply stating that the Russian text prevails over the English version, if any differences between the two are discovered. “This also means that all LiveJournal users, including people outside Russia, must follow the Russian text,” he said.
Frightening as it might seem to sign up for a blog and find yourself beholden to a Russian “legally binding, valid document,” the user agreement itself is just a generic contract that allows LiveJournal to suspend or delete your account, if you break the rules.
“The terms of service don’t establish any corpus delicti [concrete evidence of a crime] in terms of criminal procedures,” Gainutdinov said.
A wider crackdown
LiveJournal’s sudden turn on “political solicitation” follows a similar crackdown on political fundraising by the online wallet Yandex.Money, which abruptly suspended service this January to users pursuing “political aims,” less than two months after opposition leader Alexey Navalny began online fundraising through his campaign manager, Leonid Volkov.
Responding to criticism that the service was trying to handicap Navalny’s presidential campaign, Yandex.Money’s press service told the news site TJournal that it was simply protecting itself and its users from the potential risks of “legally ambiguous” activity.
Irina Borogan, coauthor of the books “The New Nobility” and “The Red Web,” told RuNet Echo that LiveJournal’s new terms of service represent the Russian government’s fear of social networks in the wake of recent demonstrations organized by Navalny. She explained that a ban on political agitation could serve as a pretext for deleting or suspending any accounts that share information about “unsanctioned” protests.
Russia will hold its next presidential election in March 2018. Though he hasn’t yet announced his candidacy, incumbent Vladimir Putin is widely expected to seek and win a fourth term in office.
By Kevin Rothrock, Global Voices