On September 30, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that the State Duma has introduced legislation that would allow officials to circumvent the courts when blocking websites that publish calls to unsanctioned public demonstrations and share other “undesirable information.” Several major Russian news outlets later reported this same story, citing the article that appeared in Vedomosti.
Is the story true?
Not exactly. You see, Russia already enacted a law like this four years ago. Putin signed it in late 2013, empowering the Attorney General’s Office to block a website without a court order, if prosecutors determine that it is publishing calls to public unrest, inciting extremist activity, or promoting unsanctioned demonstrations.
But now there’s something new. What’s changed?
In 2015, Russia passed a law against so-called “undesirable organizations.” If the Attorney General’s Office decides that a particular foreign or international organization threatens Russia’s national security, it can declare that group to be “undesirable.” One of the restrictions of being named “undesirable” is that you’re prohibited from disseminating information inside Russia, including on the Internet. State Duma deputies say they’re concerned that the Attorney General’s Office will need to appeal to Russia’s courts in order to block such materials online, and so the new draft legislation submitted to the parliament would add “undesirable” content to the list of things the Attorney General’s Office can ban without judicial oversight.
The Russian government currently recognizes 11 “undesirable organizations”: the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute, the Open Society Foundation, the U.S.-Russian Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Media Development Investment Fund, the International Republican Institute, the Open Russia Civic Movement, Open Russia, the Institute of Modern Russia, and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.
Most importantly, the draft legislation also contains a small but highly significant proposal: the extrajudicial blocking not just of “undesirable” content, but of any online information that allows Internet users to access content banned in Russia. In theory, this means the legislation would empower the Attorney General’s Office to block any website or webpage that publishes instructions for circumventing the government’s Internet censorship.