Russia Now Controls Bloggers’ Every Move

May 07, 2014 at 5:51 PM ET

The list of media outlets approved by the Russian government may soon be much shorter than the number of news sources the Kremlin has banned.

Having already outlawed most independent media in the country, President Vladimir Putin went a step further yesterday, signing a new law that requires bloggers who receive over 3,000 daily visitors to register with the Russian government. The so-called “Bloggers Law” squarely targets writers who are critical of the government, as it means they’ll no longer be able to blog anonymously—a popular option for dissenting voices in a country that regularly persecutes the opposition.

“That means you can’t badmouth a political opponent or write something bad about the police,” blogger Andrei Malgin wrote on the Echo of Moscow website.

The government registration, which allows the Kremlin to monitor and regulate blogs with any kind of real following, essentially puts online scribblers in the same bind as other media outlets, which are already regulated.

The law is also intentionally vague. For instance, there’s no indication whether the government will use its own tracking mechanism to account for the 3,000-visitor threshold or if it will rely on self-reporting. LiveJournal, which is widely used in Russia, has already announced that it will stop its counters at 2,500. Yandex, the most popular search engine in Russia and another blogging platform, made a similar statement.

According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, there are about 30,000 Russian bloggers who meet the visitor criteria. When the new law goes into effect on Aug. 1, the government will temporarily shut down those who don’t comply and issue fines of up to $142,000. The law also requires search engines like Google and social networks that host these bloggers to store six months’ worth of posts and user data, including blog comments, on Russian soil. It’s yet another attempt to force tech giants to comply with Russian investigations, as currently the government has no authority to snoop on data outside its borders.

“This law is a step toward segmenting and nationalizing the Internet and putting it under the Kremlin’s control,” Matthew Schaaf, who works for international press watchdog Freedom House, told Bloomberg. “It could have a serious chilling effect on online expression in Russia, making users stop to think how their Google searches and Facebook posts could be used against them.”

Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontakte, Russia’s Facebook, recently fled the country after refusing to hand over information on its users to the Russian government. But Durov’s deputy, VK General Director Boris Dobrodeyev, commented on the new regulations, telling Russian news agency RIA Novosti that he’s “scared by the number of unarticulated points in the law and the lack of clear and transparent rules of the game.”

This isn’t the first time Russian censors have turned their attention to the Internet—which President Vladimir Putin recently called a “CIA project.” Russia’s equivalent of the FCC began an Internet blacklist in 2012, and the following year, multiple sites and blogs were added to the list when Russia passed a law criminalizing “gay propaganda.” This March, the government shut down the popular LiveJournal of opposition leader Alexei Navalny—who was placed under house arrest for two months this February—and banned a host of other sites that were relaying information out of step with the Kremlin’s party line.