Russia follows in footsteps of SOPA with unsettling new anti-piracy laws

In a controversial move by the Kremlin, Russia has followed in the footsteps of SOPA by hurriedly passing two new anti-piracy bills. Experts have been debating whether the new proposed laws - the first to be passed by Russian authorities in over eighteen years - are in fact a smokescreen for something more sinister.

The first bill is an extrajudicial blacklist for websites, meaning that any website containing content deemed to be 'unsuitable' or harmful can be shut down without the need for court judgment or investigation.

The main problem with the blacklisting method is that IP addresses are targeted instead of specific URLs, resulting in blameless websites inadvertently ending up on the blacklist with very little they can do about it. Alexey Eremenko, reporting for online Russia-based news provider RIA Novosti, states: “About 150 websites were on the blacklist as of July 1, but another 6,800 unrelated sites fell victim to the ban because the government is using a flawed blocking mechanism… according to independent internet watchdog”.

The second is a radical anti-piracy law. The legislation for this was drawn up by four lawmakers without the consultation of Internet industry representatives, and was rushed through Parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin within just three weeks. 

The main aim is, apparently, to curb film piracy, but it is targeting the middlemen as opposed to the pirates themselves; for instance, under this law, a website can be shut down if an independent comment on a page infringes copyright, even if the page itself does not. Anton Nossik, the famed Russian Internet free-speech activist and 'Social Media Evangelist', has called it “probably the worst Internet law ever passed” on his blog.

It's fairly similar to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a US law which enables content believed to infringe copyright to be removed from websites and search engines. The significant difference, however, is that under the Russian legislation, copyright holders don't have to contact the uploader but can go right to court.  The court will not determine legality, but will simply order the content to be removed.  If the order is not followed within twenty-four hours of its decree, a state watchdog again has the right to “block the offending webpage or website by IP address – which is often shared by dozens or hundreds of unrelated websites, all of which will effectively fall under the ban.” 

Only one of the creators commented: Alexei Pimanov (a host for Russia's most popular TV channel) claimed on his show in late June that he co-authored the bill with the aim of improving Russia's ailing film industry.  Others are saying that online piracy is the least of the industry's problems, for example, Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov has simply cited poor quality of film content.

A recent example of the new legislation in action is the banning of what Eremenko calls the 'morbidly cute educational cartoon' called 'Dumb Ways To Die'. The informational cartoon has been winning critical acclaim at international ad festivals; it was designed to promote safety awareness in relation to the dangers of public transport through black humor. Beginning life as a public service announcement campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia, it quickly went viral in late 2012, yet Russian authorities decided that in fact, it promoted suicide, and subsequently banned it.

Furthermore, the legislation has allowed for the removal of educational content such as the Russian Wikipedia page about cannabis. Shakirov, speaking for the Pirate Party, is troubled by the precedent that has now been set for tacking any kind of ban onto the law.

Clearly, the 'Dumb Ways To Die' cartoon does not promote suicide; nor does the Wikipedia page promote the use of cannabis. This raises the question: What is the true motive for such extensive policing of internet usage?

Whilst you might expect that Russian internet-censorship law would consist of heavy regulation of political or anti-Kremlin content, experts have warned that they believe the problem is actually more complex than that, and reflects a broader prohibitive trend in state policy, in conjunction with the business agenda of film-makers and TV lobbyists.  The Kremlin apparently already has the capability to suppress online political dissent without the assistance of the new regulations.

The wider implication of these laws is that they can be used to effectively limit and in some cases even remove altogether the opportunity for alternative viewpoints through the censorship of independent media, which is at least as popular as state controlled television.

Another key concern is that the new legislation is motivated in part by the desire to promote a Russian authorship monopoly. The banning of the 'Dumb Ways To Die' cartoon is a clear illustration of this. Essentially, the new legislation has already been abused in order to ban a popular video, perhaps to protect the economic interests of the Russian film and television industries; is it possible that 'Dumb Ways To Die' was banned under the pretence of promoting a harmful concept, merely because it wasn't made in Russia? Indeed, the bill could be used as a tool for commercial censorship.

In a weak attempt to defend their position, proponents of the blacklisting bill such as Denis Davydov, the head of the League of Safe Internet (a government-affiliated non-profit group which co-drafted the blacklist bill) claimed that the move was 'inevitable' due to the 'free-for-all' nature of the Internet.

But despite rising Internet usage contributing to anti-Kremlin activism, supporters of the law insist that there are no political undercurrents behind it.  Davydoff points out that no websites have been blocked for political reasons since last November.  Even some anti-regulation activists have suggested that, in fact, the new law doesn't mean much because of the existing legislation that already allows effective censorship, for example the anti-extremism law. However, new initiatives might go much further – Russian lawmakers are working on a law that will block sites or pages containing ‘abusive language’

With these new legislations being deemed the 'Russian SOPA', and major companies such as Google and Wikipedia coming under threat once again, it seems that Russia, in a bid to protect its own economic interests, has declared war on free-speech, reviving the anger of SOPA protestors once more. Legislation like this only further removes Russia from the global community and limits the likelihood of progress; expect protests from thousands of websites when the law officially comes into practice on August 1.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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