Lawmakers Propose Web Site Controls

Federation Council members are lining up behind a proposal that would force owners of web sites with more than 1,000 hits per day to register as mass media outlets, a move experts say could stifle freedom of expression.

Senator Vladimir Slutsker, who is sponsoring amendments to make the changes, said popular web sites with sizable information content should be regulated by the country's press law.

"The amendments would only affect web sites that are, in effect, Internet mass media, but which have not been duly registered as such," Slutsker said, Interfax reported.

Slutsker said the changes were necessary because there was no clear-cut definition of Internet mass media in the present press law, which was passed in 1991 -- three years before the appearance of the RuNet. He said the changes would only regulate excesses by online journalists and would not affect blogs, social networking sites or search engines.

The effort replicates a similar move in 2005, when Dmitry Frolov, head of the Federal Security Service's information security center, told the Federation Council that authorities deserved broader powers to control telecommunications and the Internet.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a State Duma deputy and member of the Information Policy Committee, dismissed Slutsker's initiative as a publicity stunt, saying there was no need to strangle budding freedom. "I don't believe any law controlling activities on the Internet could actually pass through the State Duma," he said. "I am sure that our committee will never support such amendments."

Under Russian law, senators cannot initiate laws, Ponomaryov said, adding that any Federation Council member seeking to introduce a bill must go through the relevant Duma committee.

Yekaterina Shatalina, a spokeswoman for Slutsker, downplayed concerns Tuesday, saying work was still needed before the amendments were passed. "A bill is currently being prepared and will be submitted to the State Duma before the end of June," Shatalina said. "We are not trying to control the Internet. We just want journalists to play by the rules and show responsibility for whatever they publish on the Internet."

The amendments have garnered the support of many key lawmakers, including Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, she said. Gryzlov said Tuesday that he did not support any attack on the freedom of the Internet. He said the proposed legislation should target terrorists and those who seek to destabilize the country, Interfax reported.

Shatalina said Gryzlov's concerns "were already reflected in the proposed amendments."

Alexander Kovalyov, public relations director at Rambler Media, said authorities could conceivably control what appears online by going through the country's few Internet service providers.

Anatoly Baranov, editor of online journal Forum-MSK.ru, said the country needed no laws regulating the Internet and that any attempt to do so was doomed to fail.

"They are attempting to use Russian laws to control what lies outside Russian jurisdiction," Baranov said. "Even if the amendments were passed, enforcing the law would be impossible because web site owners can easily move servers elsewhere."