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Russia’s Bloggers Under Attack

If you haven’t been paying attention to one of the largest countries in the world is persecuting bloggers. I’ve written up a summary in the ClarkWP Magazine site produced by my Clark College WordPress students, “The New Blogger’s Law in Russia.”

In December 2013, the Russian parliament passed a law to allow the blocking of sites “calling for unauthorized demonstrations” without court notification or approval.

While there were many protests nationally and internationally to prevent the new “blogger’s law” from passing, it passed the first week in May 2014.

The new law describes the term “blogger” for the first time: A person who posts open information on a personal page.

This is a literal translation that basically means a blogger is anyone publishing “open information” on a web page.

With more than 61 million online users in Russia, it’s growing online economy and industry is threatened by by such strict media rules and regulations.

The new rules outlined in the bill state the following, applicable to the so defined “bloggers:”

  • Any site with more than 3,000 visits a day qualifies.
  • Such a site must register.
  • Any site (and its domain name) may be cancelled if found to be “inciting violence, “extremist” activity, advocating overthrow of the government, activity in conflict with human dignity or religious beliefs.”
  • Any site found to be in compliance with the above has three days to take down content. Non-compliance and two additional warnings will result in the termination of the site.
  • Applicable site types include blogs and social media networks and channels.
  • Pseudonyms are not permitted. Site owners and contributors must publish with their surname, initials, and email address publicly displayed.
  • All articles must be fact-checked before publishing, confirm the accuracy of the information, and respect electoral law, among other laws similar to those required of journalists.
  • Bloggers are accountable when writing about individuals, organizations, or the government with the intent to “defame or libel.”
  • Bloggers are held responsible and libel for comments posted on their web pages.
  • Fines range from USD $280 to $850, with “legal entities” fined up to $8,500.
  • A hotline is being established to encourage citizens to report “illegal or harmful” online content.

We had a great discussion in my WordPress I class at the college about Russia’s Blogger Law and US and international laws impacting bloggers, as well as what WordPress does to protect its users. I thought I’d share some resources and information we found while doing research on the subject.

How Does Russia’s Blogger Law Impact You?

On the surface, it may appear that this law is restricted to Russia’s borders, but it isn’t. Many countries follow the example set by Russia. Let’s not forget that the United States is still under restrictions put in place after 9/11 with the creation of Homeland Security and the USA Patriot Act. We’ve seen the results of these actions in the news, especially with Snowden and others.

The US government passed the USA Patriot Act a few weeks after the events of September 11. The law brought changes to the laws regarding surveillance. It increased the government’s ability to look at citizen records held by third parties, conduct secret searches, collect foreign intelligence information, and spy on citizens under “tap and trace” searchers.

According to a report by the ACLU in 2010:

One of the most significant provisions of the Patriot Act makes it far easier for the authorities to gain access to records of citizens’ activities being held by a third party. At a time when computerization is leading to the creation of more and more such records, Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to force anyone at all – including doctors, libraries, bookstores, universities, and Internet service providers – to turn over records on their clients or customers.

The FISA Amendment Act in 2008 gives the National Security Agency (NSA) almost “unchecked power to monitor Americans’ international phone calls, text messages, and emails — under the guise of targeting foreigners abroad.”

The ACLU’s investigation into the FISA Amendments reports that in addition to the NSA monitoring and saving copies of every international and email communication, the sweeping powers reach beyond their jurisdiction:

Intelligence officials routinely use the specter of terrorist plots to justify their sweeping surveillance powers, but the email searches revealed today go far beyond terrorist activity. Under this program, the government may monitor people who aren’t even suspected of any wrongdoing, simply because they might have said something “about” someone of foreign-intelligence interest to the NSA. As we have pointed out in the past, “foreign intelligence” is a category with few limits; it is defined exceptionally broadly to include not only information about terrorism but also information about intelligence activities, the national defense, and even “the foreign affairs of the United States.”

In 2011, Homeland Security released an initiative for the monitoring of the media and reported they found the following. Pay close attention to the line about journalists and reporters as citizen journalists (bloggers) are often classified with that group. (Note the acronyms: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS), and National Operations Center (NOC).)

OPS/NOC is permitted to collect PII [personally identifiable information] on the following categories of individuals when it lends credibility to the report or facilitates coordination with federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, foreign, or international government partners:

1) U.S. and foreign individuals in extremis situations involving potential life or death circumstances;
2) senior U.S. and foreign government officials who make public statements or provide public updates;
3) U.S. and foreign government spokespersons who make public statements or provide public updates;
4) U.S. and foreign private sector officials and spokespersons who make public statements or provide public updates;
5) names of anchors, newscasters, or on-scene reporters who are known or identified as reporters in their post or article or who use traditional and/or social media in real time to keep their audience situationally aware and informed;
6) current and former public officials who are victims of incidents or activities related to Homeland Security; and
7) terrorists, drug cartel leaders, or other persons known to have been involved in major crimes of Homeland Security interest.

PII inadvertently or incidentally collected outside the scope of these discrete set of categories of individuals shall be redacted immediately before further use and sharing.

The report goes on to state the following about the usage of the information monitored and collected:

Requirement: The OPS/NOC will only monitor publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites, and message boards to collect information used in providing situational awareness and a common operating picture.

Review: PRIV [DHS Privacy Office] reviewed Appendix A of the PIA [Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative Privacy Impact Assessment] update (Social Medial Web Sites Monitored by the NOC) and found that the websites listed were all publicly available and that all use of data published via social media sites was solely to provide more accurate situational awareness, a more complete common operating picture, and more timely information for decision makers in compliance with their statutory mandate.

The New York Times reported in 2012 that Homeland Security (DHS) analysts were told to monitor policy debates as well as suspicious activity on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook:

Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group that filed the lawsuit and obtained the document, argued that the manual shows that the monitoring may have gone beyond its limited portrayal by department officials.

“The D.H.S. continues to monitor the Internet for criticism of the government,” she said. “This suspicionless, overbroad monitoring quells legitimate First Amendment activity and exceeds the agency’s legal authority.”

A federal statute cited by officials last week as the legal basis for the program gives the National Operations Center the authority “to provide situational awareness” for officials “in the event of a natural disaster, act of terrorism or other man-made disaster” and to “ensure that critical terrorism and disaster-related information reaches government decision makers.”

Gene Howington, a guest blogger on Jonathan Turley’s site explained how we don’t have the right to freedom of speech that most assume, clarifying the founding fathers’ determination that free meant free in the right to freedom of speech:

Do you have a right to anonymous political free speech?

According to the Supreme Court, you do. According to the Department of Homeland Security, you don’t. They’ve hired General Dynamics to track U.S. citizens exercising this critical civil right.

The history of anonymous political free speech in America dates back to our founding. The seminal essays found in “The Federalist Papers” were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay under the nom de plume of “Publius” although this was not confirmed until a list of authorship complied by Hamilton was posthumously released to the public.

As previously discussed on this blog, the right to anonymous political free speech has been addressed by the Supreme Court. Most notably in the cases of Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960) and McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995). In Talley, Justice Hugo Black writing for the majority said that, “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.”

In McIntyre, Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority said that, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. [… ] an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” That seems clear enough in defining that citizens do have a Constitutionally protected right to anonymous political free speech.

Hans Bader of the Washington DC SCOTUS on The Examiner reported on the debate about due process for copyright and freedoms online, noting that copyright is being used as justification for penalizing or shutting down a site without cause, something WordPress.com is determined to fight (see below):

Law professor David Post notes that the Department of Homeland Security is seizing entire domain names, not to protect national security, but to enforce run-of-the-mill copyrights. He calls this an unconstitutional due process violation, noting that “80 websites . . . have now been prevented from speaking to US citizens even though the website operators, whose domains were seized, had no notice or opportunity to respond to the charges against them (and to argue, for instance, that they are NOT infringing copyrights or trademarks), no adversary hearing, and certainly no adjudication before a neutral [judge], that anything unlawful is going on at these sites.”

He also notes that Congress has not yet passed a bill that would have granted the federal government the specific authority to seize domain names. (Senator Wyden of Oregon has put a hold on a bill known as COICA, the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act, that would allow U.S. courts to “seize” domain names belonging to U.S. or foreign websites simply upon a charge, by the Attorney General, that the site was “primarily devoted” to infringing activities.)

The attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of Internet access is a constant fight in the United States as well as worldwide. In 2012, this site and millions of others around the world blacked out in protest of the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Act (SOPA/PIPA).

While Italy started the first steps towards protection of Internet rights in 2009, in 2012, The Netherlands was the first European Country to pass net neutrality legislation to restrict wiretapping and surveillance of Internet access and usage. Laws in EU countries now have a strong framework for net neutrality. Belgium, France, Slovenia, Israel, Chile, and Brazil have laws to uphold and protect net neutrality.

The United States, on the other hand, have taken massive steps backwards with the court decision in January 2014 to reject the Open Internet concept by the FCC, turning it over to corporate control and greed.

For more information on US Internet restrictions and laws see:

Where is WordPress on The Subject?

Luckily for the WordPress Community, WordPress has long been in support of net neutrality, freedom of speech, and resistant to many governments attacking WordPress users, including governments banning access to WordPress.com in their attempt to block access to individuals deemed illegal, inappropriate, disruptive, and too influential, often speaking out against governments and their policies, or in favor of the opposition. Many WordPress bloggers offered tips on how to bypass the bans to WordPress.com and other WordPress sites, helping the voices be heard.

While Automattic and the WordPress Foundation oversee all things WordPress, they cannot control or protect those using the self-hosted version of WordPress against government and legal actions. The free web publishing platform often known as WordPress.org allows anyone to setup their site on a web host and publish whatever they wish. However, they work overtime to protect those hosted on the free WordPress.com service, including this site.

In 2013, WordPress.com stood up against the abuse of the DMCA and copyright law to shut down sites for non-copyright reasons.

Until there are some teeth to the copyright laws, it’s up to us — websites and users, together — to stand up to DMCA fraud and protect freedom of expression. Through these suits, we’d like to remind our users that we’re doing all we can to combat DMCA abuse on WordPress.com…and most importantly, remind copyright abusers to think twice before submitting fraudulent takedown notices. We’ll be watching, and are ready to fight back.

We’ll also be actively involved, on behalf of our users, in trying to change the law — both through court cases and in Congress — to make sure that everyone has the right to share their voice on the internet without threat of censorship.

In keeping with the overall mission of WordPress.com and Automattic to “democratize publishing,” WordPress.com released their first Transparency Report of government information requests, national security requests, and takedown demands they’ve received during the last two quarters of 2013.

For the second half of 2013, approximately 0.0001% of the 48 million sites that we host were subject to a government information request. Our policy is to notify you of any information request we receive regarding your account, so that you may challenge the request. The only exception is if we are prohibited by law (not just asked nicely by the police) from making such a notification. We also carefully review all legal requests we receive and actively push back on those that are procedurally deficient, overly-broad, or otherwise improper (i.e., those that target non-criminal free speech). In other words, we’ve got your back.

WordPress stood against SOPA/PIPA encouraging us all to be “agents of change:”

You are an agent of change. Has anyone ever told you that? Well, I just did, and I meant it.

Normally we stay away from from politics here at the official WordPress project — having users from all over the globe that span the political spectrum is evidence that we are doing our job and democratizing publishing, and we don’t want to alienate any of our users no matter how much some of us may disagree with some of them personally. Today, I’m breaking our no-politics rule, because there’s something going on in U.S. politics right now that we need to make sure you know about and understand, because it affects us all.

Using WordPress to blog, to publish, to communicate things online that once upon a time would have been relegated to an unread private journal (or simply remained unspoken, uncreated, unshared) makes you a part of one of the biggest changes in modern history: the democratization of publishing and the independent web. Every time you click Publish, you are a part of that change, whether you are posting canny political insight or a cat that makes you LOL. How would you feel if the web stopped being so free and independent? I’m concerned freaked right the heck out about the bills that threaten to do this, and as a participant in one of the biggest changes in modern history, you should be, too.

WordPress.com added a feature to permit members to blackout their sites in protest. Self-hosted WordPress users had a variety of WordPress Plugins to shut down their site for the day of protest.

Automattic, WordPress.com, and the WordPress Foundation is doing what it can to protect us, but we need to protect ourselves and our rights, too.

At the time, Jen Mylo reported that WordPress represented 60 million users, approximately 15% of the web. Today, that number is over 22%, a large population that can indeed change and influence the way the web works.

So that means you. As a WordPress user, you have power, power as a self-publisher on the web and as part of a global community.

You have influence. You can make a change.

If you know someone in Russia, learn about the laws and find out what is being done there and how you can support them as their government makes it harder for them to have their say.

Even if you do not know someone in Russia, teach your readers. Tell them about the government actions there and here to restrict our rights on the web. Russians may not be able to talk about it, but we can. Right now.

If you are reading this, this is your problem. And your chance to fix it.


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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen.

8 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    It is all about control. I suppose that history has taught us nothing. The only control we really have is self control. Once a person or entity tries to inflict their will on others, they only create resistance.

    • Posted May 23, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Well said. Unfortunately, governments (and individuals in charge) believe they can control the individual, the masses. Until we take your advice, I don’t see us moving ahead much.

    • Posted May 23, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Yea, I know. It’s so sad.

  2. Posted May 23, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Tales from the World.

  3. Posted May 23, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on 1EarthUnited.

  4. Posted May 24, 2014 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    You are right, it’s so easy to sit back and think this doesn’t concern me but it’s been shown over and over again that the Big Boys, Russia and the US set the tone and all the others follow. So today it might be Russian Bloggers but tomorrow it’s Britain, Japan, Morocco…all following in the footsteps of the Big Boys.

  5. Posted September 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Good news. Thanks.

  6. Posted September 18, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Good job, we have to punish them if we have to find out hacker.


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