Conflicting Drafts For Internet Freedom Law

The Communications and Press Ministry is taking a much tougher stance on Internet freedom than the State Duma, judging from a comparison of their new legislative proposals.

The lawmakers' draft says that everything on the web that is not prohibited is allowed, while the ministry holds that law enforcement agencies should have the power to shut down web sites and issue orders to Internet service providers.

A working group in the Duma's Information Policy Committee, created by United Russia, has proposed a number of amendments to the law on information technology and data protection.

The document defines basic Internet concepts, such as global computer networks and web site operators, and outlines the limits of national jurisdiction when applied to the World Wide Web.

The working group includes, among others, Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Union of Journalists (who worked on the current media law); Astamur Tedeyev, head of the UNESCO department of the Higher School of Economics; Pavel Gusev, editor-in-chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets; and the Internet expert Anton Nosik.

The bill will not be introduced in the State Duma before fall, said Robert Shlegel, a United Russia deputy who is also a member of the working group.

He said the Internet is a very sensitive topic, which makes it necessary to discuss the new law with industry representatives and common web users.

The draft was forwarded to the Kremlin and the government, Shlegel said. The bill's authors hope to get President Dmitry Medvedev's support.

The main idea behind the bill is that everything that is allowed in real life should be allowed online as well, and so any attempts to introduce additional limitations are illegal.

Shlegel said the Communications and Press Ministry has drafted an alternative bill that would give more power to law enforcement agencies working with Internet providers and web sites.

The ministry's legislation would allow for domain names to be suspended on a request from law enforcement agencies and access to online data limited by a prosecutor's request.

These proposals are already being de facto enacted. In December, WiMax provider Scartel, which owns the Yota brand, blocked opposition web sites without a court order, later explaining that it was a technical mistake.

In February, Ru-Center, a domain name registrar, suspended the domain, which hosted Russia's biggest torrent tracker, on a request from prosecutors.

The Duma's bill emphasizes that the rights of individuals and legal bodies should never be limited outside of the court, said Tedeyev of the Duma's working group.

The bill said no limitations should be imposed on the transfer of information via global computer networks as long as no laws are infringed in the process.

The person that transfers the information, and not the Internet provider, should be held responsible for the contents of the data in question, the bill said.

Online interactions fall under Russian laws if they involve property located in Russia, or if participants include Russian residents, whether individuals or legal bodies, the Duma bill said.

This means that creators and moderators of a given web site can be prosecuted in Russia even if their server is located abroad.

But the Communications and Press Ministry proposes using national laws in cases when harm is inflicted on Russian territory or the perpetrator accessed the web from Russia.

A ministry representative could not comment on the Duma's bill.

The Duma's bill does a bad job of defining jurisdictions because it fails to explain which businesses should be considered Russian, and that is a vital question for companies aiming at the global market, said Ulyana Zinina, chief legal advisor of Yandex.

The bill also fails to solve the important issues of digital signatures and providers' responsibility for illegal content hosted on their servers, Zinina said.

Ideas put forth by the lawmakers should be supported, but it currently remains unclear how they correspond to existing norms, said Viktor Naumov, a partner with the Salans law firm.

He cited as an example the investigative surveillance legislation, which allows law enforcement to retrieve technical information from electronic networks without a court order.

The regulation may require complex laws to be introduced in some cases, such as defining providers' responsibility for the content they host, he said.

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