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April 03, 2013

Russia’s Enforcement of Child Porn Law Threatens Internet Freedom

By Meg Roggensack

Russia is in the news again: this time for using a new law aimed at curbing internet child pornography, drug use, and suicide to instead limit internet speech. The authorities’ implementation of this new law deserves critical scrutiny, for as we have seen in the past, Russia has a well-established history of selectively enforcing seemingly neutral laws to suppress universal rights and freedoms.

It is true that many countries are concerned about child pornography, adolescent drug use and suicide risks. But absent an independent judiciary and rule of law, these types of measures are open to abuse, and Russia has a demonstrated track record of using legitimate laws in illegitimate ways.  As yesterday’s New York Times article reports, civil society groups see this law as opening the door to broader censorship.

Russian authorities invoked antipiracy laws to raid pro-democracy, environmental protection, independent press and anti-hate speech groups. In Human Rights First’s report, “A Campaign Against Dissent: Selective Enforcement of Antipiracy Laws in Russia,” we documented a number of cases from 2007 - 2010 when selective enforcement was used to silence political critics of the Russian government. As a Russian editor targeted for antipiracy enforcement noted, “This is not a campaign against piracy. It’s a campaign against dissent…The authorities want to destroy an opposition newspaper.”

Human Rights First  worked closely with many of the affected organizations and Microsoft to design a licensing program to immunize civil society groups from prosecution. In the course of that effort, we learned that companies operating in Russia should ensure that government requests to censor internet speech under the new internet law are narrowly tailored. Companies can best achieve this result by:

  • Communicating their existing policies in advance to relevant officials.
     
  • Ensuring that those within the company tasked with responding to government requests are informed of the likely risks of over-enforcement or selective enforcement – through ongoing risk assessments informed by robust local engagement with civil society organizations.
     
  • Having appropriate escalation procedures in place to enable consistent decision making and reduce risk to local employees.
     
  • Working with industry colleagues and the US government to highlight concerns about and limit scope for abusive enforcement.

On April 25, Microsoft is hosting its fifth annual “NGO Day” in Moscow and is inviting civil society groups to participate in training programs and dialogues about ongoing cooperation. This year’s master classes for NGO directors focus on IT security, audit, and project management. Civil society and internet companies are both affected by the limitations to internet freedom that ultimately curtails the spread of ideas and information in Russia’s young democratic society. They need to work together to promote enforcement policies that are narrowly tailored and subject to independent judicial oversight.