The rapid development of the Internet, its ever-growing number of users, and virtually unlimited content sharing opportunities inevitably raise the issue of legal Internet regulation. Regulation is particularly critical for two issues: protecting children from harmful Internet content and fighting extremism. These questions were discussed at an event hosted by Carnegie Moscow Center. Sam Greene of the Center for the Study of New Media and Society at the New Economic School in Moscow and Natalia Yudina of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis presented their reports. Vasily Gatov of RIA Novosti’s Media Lab provided comments. Carnegie’s Maria Lipman moderated.
Ensuring Internet Safety for Children
Greene presented research from the Center for the Study of New Media and Society entitled Internet Safety for Children: International Experience and Challenges for Russia.
- International Legal Experience: Greene explained that the Center’s researchers studied legislative initiatives for children’s Internet safety in twelve countries across five continents. The lawmakers in each country emphasized the creation and distribution of child pornography and the unlawful exploitation of children associated with it. The legislation and law enforcement practices in this sphere are primarily grounded in existing “offline” legislation and practices, Greene explained. Ensuring Internet safety for children primarily relies on state involvement in the information space in general.
- Forced Internet Filter Systems: To ensure children’s safety on the Internet, the Russian authorities considered creating a system of internal forced filtering at the level of Internet providers. Greene noted that all known attempts to institute a system of forced automatic filtering in other countries were rejected, with the sole exception of China. He pointed out that such systems are highly effective in blocking undesirable content in cases of intentional access, but their effectiveness in preventing accidental access is low. Furthermore, he added, the system’s direct costs and indirect losses are high.
- Self-Regulation: Many countries also considered creating a system of self-regulation that relies on voluntary participation from content creators, Internet providers, and hosting providers. Such a system also necessitates the creation of universal content standards and tools for ensuring children’s safety, added Greene. Such a system is balanced in terms of costs versus benefits; however, it loses its effectiveness if misused, Greene noted. Nor would it necessarily satisfy public demand, since the public often does not trust companies that provide for children’s Internet safety, he added.
- “Black Lists”: According to Greene, creating “black lists” of web sites hosting illegal content allows for a case-by-case reaction to a changing web environment and for the blocking of known violators. However, such a system is quite expensive and slow—sometimes it is not quick enough to “catch up” with the violators. Besides, he added, “black lists” are rather ineffective in cases of accidental access.
- Using “Black Lists” in Russia: Russia has decided to create “black lists” to ensure children’s Internet safety, but the system is not yet fully developed, Greene said. At the moment, it is not clear how the black-listed sites located outside of Russia will be blocked for Russian visitors. In order to resolve this problem, Greene said, there is the possibility of blocking their content through Deep Packet Inspection, which blocks only the prohibited sites, thus minimizing the side effects. However, it also comes with lower data processing and transfer speeds and/or higher consumer costs for Internet services; further, it undermines the security of personal and commercial data, which diminishes the country’s attractiveness to investors, as well as makes total monitoring possible. Moreover, blocking Internet traffic within the whole country disrupts the functionality of Internet globally, Greene concluded.
Yudina presented a report produced by the SOVA Center entitled Virtual Anti-Extremism: Peculiarities of Enforcing the Anti-Extremist Law on the Internet in Russia (2007–2011). She noted that a single act can be subject to both criminal and administrative prosecution.
- Criminal Prosecution: The number of those sentenced for extreme views expressed on the Internet has grown significantly in recent years: in 2007, three individuals were sentenced, while in 2011 the 52 were sentenced, although she acknowledged that the criminal penalties for Internet extremism are quite small. Yudina stressed that primarily acts of little significance—remarks, links, and reposts of content that pose little threat—are prosecuted. At the same time, truly dangerous content, like manuals promoting street terrorism, enjoys open Internet access. Yudina suggested that the reason for this disparity is that law enforcement officials go after those who are easier to reach.
- Administrative Prosecution: Besides criminal prosecution, administrative proceedings are held in cases of Internet extremism, generally under the article entitled “Producing and Distributing Extremist Materials.” There is a federal registry of extremist materials; however, according to Yudina, distributing the items on the registry is prosecuted selectively—only a few publications, like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, are singled out. In Yudina’s opinion, this renders the registry largely meaningless.
- Problems With Blocking Content: Another method of combatting Internet extremism involves having hosting and Internet providers suspend or block certain web sites in response to requests by law enforcement. Yudina noted, however, that it is not always possible to block a specific link: in this case, only the entire site can be blocked. This is a very controversial practice, as the law prescribes blocking specific material only.
On the whole, Russia’s experience in combatting Internet extremism cannot be considered successful, Yudina concluded. The number of pending cases is growing, while the quality of combatting extremism is deteriorating. There are many cases of “random victims” and just a few instances of prosecuting serious acts: truly dangerous content often goes unnoticed by law enforcement officials.
Internet Regulation: Subjectivity of Public Perception
The issue of Internet freedom and its extent is quite complex, and all the sides in the debate are extremely biased, Gatov noted. Those supporting Internet regulation claim that excessive Internet freedom is a sign of “some conspiracy against moral values and spirituality that are characteristic of Russian society.” On the other extreme, those against regulation believe that restrictions on Internet use are a conspiracy to destroy remnants of freedom. Nevertheless, any discussion on Internet regulation is important for Russian society, Gatov summed up.