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Russian Parliament's upper house approves Internet 'censorship' bill

Russia's government will gain the power to blacklist websites without a court's consent

The upper house of the Russian Parliament passed a bill on Wednesday that the Russian IT industry believes has high potential to lead to Internet censorship.

The bill, including amendments to several laws, was adopted by the upper house of the Russian Parliament, the Federation Council of Russia. The adoption of the bill makes it easier to block sites that host child pornography, promote drugs and provide instructions about how to commit suicide, as well as other information that affects health and development, the Council said. In particular, the law includes the creation of mechanisms for the rapid removal of web pages that contain materials prohibited from circulation within Russia, the Council said.

IT companies in Russia however, have been warning that the law can have negative effects and lead to censorship because there is a risk that legal content can be blocked more easily too, mainly because it amends the law "On information, information technologies and information protection" to allow the blocking of websites through IP and DNS blockades.

It also looks as though Roskomnadzor, the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications, will gain the power to blacklist websites without a court's consent as of Nov. 1, Vladimir Medeyko, director of Wikimedia Russia, the organization that runs the local version of Wikipedia, said via instant message.

One of the amended laws leaves the opportunity to blacklist whole domains when only part of the hosted content is illegal. For instance 1.3 million blogs hosted on Blogger are blocked in Russia as a result of a court ruling that ordered the blocking of access to extremist blog posts, Google Russia said earlier this month. And in another lawsuit in 2010, a court ordered a local Internet provider to block the entire YouTube domain because the court deemed one of the hosted movies illegal, according to Google. The company said the new law is a threat for the Internet.

Presenting the bill to the Council, Senator Lyudmila Narusova said that the Internet community has certain worries, particularly regarding the risk of unjustified blacklisting of websites, and that it is necessary to constantly monitor enforcement of the amended law. However, she also pointed out that many European countries, including Germany and the U.K., and also the U.S. have certain mechanisms in place to block websites, adding that the fight against illegal information on Internet is strong in the world, a Council statement said.

Amendments to the law "On information, information technologies and information protection" should not have been made so hastily, said Vladimir Isaev, Manager of International Media Relations at Russian search engine Yandex, via email.

"Yandex is ready to accept official invitations to discuss the Bill or to commit our vision and opinion to government authorities," he said. The effects on the Russian online industry are hard to gauge at the moment, he said adding: "All of us are waiting for subordinate regulatory acts and regulation instructions."

The bill moved through the lower and upper house within a period of two weeks, giving the industry little time to protest the legislation. After Wikipedia became aware of the bill and its potential it decided to block access to its site for 24 hours. The English version of Wikipedia, along with websites including Reddit and Craigslist, conducted a similar protest against the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) by blocking access to their sites last January. Other Russian online businesses including Yandex, social network VK.com and the Russian version of Live Journal posted banners or blog posts to protest the bill.

These protests were followed by changes to the proposed amendments to legislation. Among the changes the Russian security service FSB (successor to the KGB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs were excluded from the list of government bodies that would be allowed to blacklist sites, before the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, approved the bill, Medeyko said last week. Wikimedia Russia was also allowed to partake in a working group overseeing the bill and its implementations.

Since last week, little has changed, said Medeyko, who added that he had not expected the Council to reject the bill. "I'm still optimistic," he said, adding that he hoped the industry would be able to limit effect of the bill through other legislation or regulations.

Now the Senate has passed the bill, it is on its way to the President to be considered for his final signature, said Isaev.

Russian IT companies are not the only ones concerned about the law. Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement posted online on Wednesday that she was concerned that the legislative amendments in the Russian Federation would have a seriously negative impact on human rights in the country.

Given the many concerns raised about the bill by the Presidential Council on Human Rights, civil society and human rights experts, a full independent public review of this law should be conducted, said Pillay, adding that it is "very disappointing" that laws are being passed in Russia that are restricting civil society space instead of ones designed to create an environment that would help civil society enhance human rights promotion and protection.

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