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Russia to block websites that call for rioting, ‘extremism’ without court ruling

Published time: December 21, 2013 09:54
Edited time: December 21, 2013 10:29
AFP Photo / Hoang Dinh Nam

AFP Photo / Hoang Dinh Nam

Russia’s lawmakers have passed a bill authorizing prosecutors to issue emergency orders without a court ruling that block websites promoting rioting, racial hatred or extremism. Critics fear the law may infringe constitutional rights.

Under the bill, which has passed its third and final reading in the State Duma, a special agency can be set up within the Prosecutor General’s Office to surf the web in search of provocative messages. Only the Prosecutor General and his deputies will be able to order the blocking of websites.

The site owner will find out about the blocking after it happens. The website would be unblocked immediately after the content deemed to be illegal is removed.

Currently in Russia, it takes several days to obtain a court ruling to block an internet site containing extremist materials.

Among the content that can be banned are incitements to participate in “public events held in violation of the established order,” “extremist” or terrorist activities, according to the bill. Also, content that provokes conflicts between nations or religions may be banned.

The law is set to be applied for websites hosted by servers in foreign jurisdiction as well. In that case, a cease and desist order would be sent in English, a co-sponsor of the bill, Liberal Democratic party lawmaker Andrey Lugovoy told Interfax. If the hosting company refuses to remove the content after the notification, it will be blocked in Russia, he said.

The legislation extends the existing list of illegal content that may be blocked without a court order. Currently, only child pornography and information promoting drug abuse and suicide may be blocked.

The law has been criticized by the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, however, which called the new powers it gives the Prosecutor General’s Office "fraught with serious infringements to Constitutional rights and freedoms of the person and citizen," according to a statement on the body’s website.

The legislation will also “create the illusion of battling extremism, instead of actually working to eliminate it,” the committee said.

The law also came under fire from MPs. One lawmaker, Fair Russia’s Dmitry Gudkov, pointed out that allowing the Prosecutor General to determine what material is "extremist" and what is not would contradict the Constitution.

The Russian Association of Electronic Communications, an industry lobby group for Russian tech firms, added that there is no specific mechanism in the law for handling media websites where provocative statements may appear among users’ comments. This may lead to legitimate websites being shut down due to deliberate provocations, the group says.

Sponsors of the bill argue that the authority is only given to most senior prosecutors and that Russians can rely on their discretion to avoid abuses.

The bill now requires the approval of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, and of President Vladimir Putin before it becomes law. It is set to come into force on February 1, 2014.

On August 1, 2013, the Russian internet community voiced anger against the government’s plans to block websites. Then, more than 1,700 websites joined an online strike against the anti-piracy legislation, which allowed the blocking of web pages with a court order.

Shortly after that move, an online petition against the law gathered 100,000 signatures to send the document for discussion.