From Rossiiskaya gazeta, Dec. 4, 2020, complete text:
The State Duma will soon consider a major bill that would immediately amend two federal laws: “On information, information technologies and information protection” and “On corrective actions against persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, and the rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation [see Vol. 72, No. 47, pp. 8‑9].” The first reading is scheduled for Dec. 9. The document stipulates sanctions against foreign social networks and IT resources, up to and including blocking them. Its main provisions were explained in an exclusive interview with RG by Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Federation Council’s information policy [and media relations ad hoc] commission. He also hosts the Postscript analysis television program and has a blog on Twitter with 340,000 subscribers.
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Question. – Did you help draft the bill?
Answer. – The bill was drafted by State Duma deputies, but I was also one of its initiators. Back in September, the Federation Council’s information policy commission held a special meeting attended by Valery Fadeyev, head of the Russian President’s Human Rights Council, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, as well as the heads of media outlets, including Rossiiskaya gazeta. We discussed how we should respond to systematic attempts by Western Internet companies to block Russian Internet resources and concluded that it was time to take legislative measures. Our position is reflected in the bill: In Russia, online companies must obey our laws; they cannot be replaced by their own corporate decisions.
It is important to understand that this is not some kind of abstract initiative. There is a backstory here. This year alone, Russian content was blocked 24 times on YouTube and other foreign Internet platforms. Both entire channels, such as the Tsargrad account, and specific content were censored – for example, the investigation into the Boeing [MH17] crash over Donetsk [Province], the Beslan [terrorist attack] film, content from the RT channel and many others. Over the past few years, there have been about 200 such cases. We are talking about overt political censorship. At the same time, the general public is not very aware that foreign Internet companies violate Russian law in other areas as well. For example, [those companies] often refuse to block access to Internet resources banned in Russia for promoting [illegal] drugs, encouraging suicide, etc. Or they only partially block access to such content. They have a long track record of violating antimonopoly and advertising laws, and requirements to protect personal data. Four years ago, the Federal Antimonopoly Service fined Google 438 million rubles for abuse in the mobile app market. Incidentally, charges against this American corporation were also filed by Great Britain, Ireland and Turkey; the European Union had major grievances with it. Recently, Facebook, which failed to show that it had localized the database of its Russian users [as required], paid 4 million [rubles] at the request of Roskomnadzor [Federal Oversight Service for Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media]. All such issues are resolved in the courts through fines. But we still lack the legal means to respond to discrimination against our media. Those means are to be made available, and the Russian regulator [i.e., Roskomnadzor – Trans.] will not have to go to court every time. First, such cases require prompt resolution. Second, foreign Internet companies, including Google, often try to claim that they do not recognize the jurisdiction of Russian courts.
Q. – So nonjudicial methods will be used in disputes by Western IT giants over content blocking?
A. – The correct term is extrajudicial. The new bill provides for three such tools. First, a warning, after which the Internet platform must rectify the violation. If this is done within the specified time frame, no further sanctions will follow. But if not, then Roskomnadzor, in coordination with the Foreign Ministry (after all, we are talking about foreign legal entities), shall turn to the Prosecutor General’s Office, which can decide to partially block a particular resource or slow down its traffic. Finally, the third and last resort is the complete blocking of the platform in Russia.
Q. – For how long?
A. – Until it complies with the regulator’s request to restore the censored video or channel.
Q. – What should Russian users prepare for? Could they wake up one morning and be unable to log on to Facebook, or could YouTube links not work?
A. – I really hope that everything remains operable. It depends on Internet companies themselves. Let me give you an analogy. There are sanitary regulations requiring fast food restaurants to monitor the quality of produce. If cockroaches, mold or something else is found in storage containers, no one would be surprised if that establishment would have to be deep-cleaned, or closed altogether, at the request of Rospotrebnadzor [Russian Federal Oversight Service for Consumers’ Rights and Human Welfare]. It is probably best to avoid that altogether and just comply with our standards from the outset. So I would like to emphasize that we’re not aiming to block YouTube or Facebook. Our goal is to create incentives for Google and other Internet companies to comply with Russian laws and not censor Russian Internet content. We see that, from time to time, these companies play political games. However, we cannot allow them to set their own rules in our country, where they do business and generate huge amounts of advertising revenue. So they will have to weigh their actions against the prospect of possible losses. I personally consider blocking to be a measure of last resort. But such an option is provided precisely because without it, the law would be absolutely powerless, and adopting it would be senseless. But we are not adopting it to quickly shut down everything under some far-fetched pretext – not at all. What you are talking about – people waking up one day and finding that nothing works – that will not happen.
Q. – So your subscribers will not be deprived of the opportunity to follow you on Twitter?
A. – I hope it doesn’t come to that. If there’s a conflict, a mechanism comes into play – warnings that involve an intermediate decision-making phase. Of course, at this stage, a kind of tug-of-war may begin, where foreign companies try to test our resolve, and we must show that we are determined. Until now, negotiations where Roskomnadzor proposed to unblock certain resources were fruitless: Google had no incentive [to comply with Russian requests]. Now it will.
If we continue to take no steps, we will become hostages to the Internet dictatorship, which will determine what we should or should not read and watch. Russia is facing a completely arbitrary attack on its content, which for one reason or another is objectionable not even to the American state, but to Google or Facebook or Twitter. Do you know that by blocking the account of the Tsargrad channel, YouTube violated US law as well? They justify their actions by the fact that the owner of the TV channel, Mr. [Konstantin] Malofeyev, was put on American sanctions lists. But nowhere [in US law] does it state that the inclusion of specific individuals on these lists automatically extends [the sanctions against them] to their enterprises. So even from the standpoint of American law, this is pure arbitrariness. So we are preparing to clearly demarcate the lines that foreign companies cannot cross. And I think that corporate logic should lead them to seek a certain modus vivendi with the Russian authorities, who are taking measures to protect their information space.
I hope that the IT giants have learned their lesson from China and will not want to repeat this scenario in Russia – that they will act more carefully in order to remain in the Russian information space. Let me remind you that after much wrangling, Google announced in 2010 that it was leaving the Chinese market in the name of “defending freedom” – in other words, it refused to comply with Chinese laws. Prior to that, it refused to comply with orders of the Chinese authorities regarding access to Internet resources prohibited in the country. At the same time, the Chinese did not decide to completely block the service; the Americans themselves slammed the door. They thought China would soften its stance and let them return on their terms. But that did not happen. The Chinese have created their own platforms that have completely supplanted Google. Google would like to return to the Chinese market, but it’s too late. The same thing happened with Huawei, which used American software. But after the US authorities imposed a ban on its supply to the Chinese, China began to develop its own software. And what did the Americans get? Apple is losing access to one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world. In today’s world, there are no absolutely irreplaceable resources.
Q. – Are we following China’s lead?
A. – We are following the lead of all countries acting on the basis of sound logic and their own sovereignty. I cited China as an example also because it is the only country that is challenging the US in the trade and economic sphere, defending its interests. The Chinese do not want to lose the American market for their products, but they clearly define the boundaries beyond which China will take measures in response to US prohibitive duties. The same goes for protecting the information space. Note that both Google and Twitter have been blocking objectionable content within the US itself. I mean the unprecedented campaign against [US President Donald] Trump, where the incumbent head of state and presidential candidate fell victim to this new information censorship. Publications in the American press were also censored – for example, about the dubious activities of [US president-elect] Joe Biden’s son in Ukraine. That information was blocked by American Internet platforms during the election. And Trump’s tweets were blocked until Twitter representatives were summoned to Congress and told that they were actually violating American law. Then they came up with the idea of labeling his posts on the election results as potentially unreliable. What is that if not discrimination? And if the US has indeed decided to hold Internet platforms liable when moderating content (Trump intends to sign an executive order limiting the immunity of companies that own social networks and microblogs – RG), then Russia needs to raise such questions even more. Otherwise, all our talk about defending sovereignty will be meaningless.