The newly minted Duma committee on mass media will consider a bill that would broaden the amount of personal data required in order for new users to register on Russian social networks, potentially including a requirement to provide passport data. If passed, such a bill would be a direct threat to freedom of expression as online activists could more easily be targeted for speaking out against the government.
Russian lawmakers justified the move as an effort to protect citizens, in particular children, from child pornography, defamation, and other illegal content (some of their favorite vague reasons for censoring things). One other interesting, more honest “threat” they’re hoping to protect people from is “rumors of the overthrow of the regime.” Liberal Democratic Party of Russia deputy Vadim Dengin, one of the bill’s authors, stated: “The initiative is directed at taking care of citizens and protecting their rights as well as at the freedom of children from those perverts who spread child pornography and rumors of the overthrow of the regime on the Internet. If a person has nothing to hide, then he will not object. In the other case, that will cause him to come under suspicion.”
Several lawmakers came out against requiring passport data for registration on social media sites, but that may not spell the end of the bill and certainly does not indicate that they support online anonymity. Aleksey Mitrofanov, the chair of the Duma committee on information policy, information technology, and communications stated that the proposal was “the initiative of Vadim Dengin” and added that he doubted “it would be supported by a majority because the elements of the Chinese system are not attractive. No one plans to put up a Chinese wall [in reference to the Great Firewall of China].” Mitrofanov said he favors more “elegant” methods. Robert Shlegel, the deputy chairman of the information policy committee, also objected to the idea of using passports, but not because of the threat they pose to anonymity and freedom of expression. He was concerned that such a move would cost Russian social media businesses their customers. Instead, he proposed using mobile phones, bank cards, or universal electronic cards (which he says will soon appear) to verify users’ identities.
This is hardly the first suggestion aimed at ending online anonymity. On 8 December last year government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an interview with a bureau head in the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs who proposed outlawing anonymity online. Back in 2009, Yevgeniy Kasperskiy, leading Russian information security authority and CEO of security firm Kaspersky Labs stated that user anonymity creates a major vulnerability on the Internet, and called for mandatory Internet passports, Internet police, and international agreements to support these standards.So far no such laws have been passed and this could be yet another trial balloon.
According to a recent study, 63% of Russians support web censorship. While this figure does seem high, past surveys have found that similar numbers of Russians support censoring exactly the type of information that lawmakers claimed this bill was directed at blocking.
If the bill were to move forward and be passed, it would likely push Russian users out of Russian social networks to foreign networks like Facebook and Twitter, which as yet are not subject to Russian laws. The proposal will be discussed in the Duma committee.