Russia continues to expand the regulation of various internet-related activities, implementing a general tightening of efforts to monitor and control content, and showing special attention to activities by foreign media companies.
This LawFlash provides a brief summary of recent developments.
In July 2017, the Russian parliament approved amendments to Federal Law No. 276-FZ, On Amending Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection, (the Information Law) that introduced new regulations for electronic messenger services. The amendments became effective on January 1, 2018.
The new rules apply to owners of “messenger services,” defined as any technology and software designed or used to exchange electronic messages among users. Generally, owners are required to register with the Russian regulator, Roskomnadzor, and to maintain certain information on servers located in Russia. A similar regime was introduced earlier for certain other types of internet businesses, such as social networks and portals, which the law refers to as “information dissemination organizers.”
In particular, owners of messenger services are now required to identify users through mobile phone numbers. Russia-based messenger services must store this mobile phone identification data in Russia. If a messenger service fails to comply with the rules, the regulator may obtain a court order to block the service in Russia.
The Russian parliament in July 2017 also approved amendments to the Information Law affecting the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and similar technologies (the VPN Law). The VPN Law became effective on November 1, 2017. In essence, its ultimate purpose is to block VPNs and similar technologies that would allow access to websites, networks, and other resources prohibited in Russia.
The VPN Law does not ban the use of VPNs and similar technologies per se. Instead, it requires operators of VPNs and other affected platforms to prevent Russian users from accessing websites and other resources that have been blocked by Russian authorities.
The VPN Law allows Roskomnadzor, investigative agencies, and the Federal Security Service to identify all VPNs and their owners who are operating in Russia, whether domestic or foreign. Once identified, the VPN owner will be notified that the owner is obliged to connect to a platform maintained by Roskomnadzor and must ensure that access to the websites and resources blocked in Russia is restricted.
The VPN Law applies to both Russian and non-Russian owners of VPNs, with certain exceptions, including state-owned information systems and private networks. The private networks exception requires further discussion. Under the VPN Law, it applies where the “circle of users is predefined” and the network is “used for the technological purposes of supporting the activities” of users. This was intended to exclude corporate VPNs that companies primarily use to encrypt information (for example, secured corporate VPNs). However, the relevant language in the VPN Law is somewhat vague, and it remains to be seen how Russian authorities will apply these provisions.
If a VPN owner fails to comply, Roskomnadzor may block the service. Unlike messenger services, no court decision is required to block a noncompliant VPN. However, it is unclear whether Roskomnadzor is authorized to act where it cannot identify the VPN owner.
In the near future, an additional rule is expected that will authorize administrative fines to be imposed on VPN owners who fail to provide required information, up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $5,000). In the case of repeated violations, the penalty could be up to 500,000 rubles ($8,600) or suspension of service for up to 30 days.
Foreign Agent Mass Media
In November 2017, certain changes to Russian media laws were adopted. These changes regulate the activities of foreign mass media organizations, and apply to all types of media and information resources, including blogs and websites. To date, nine media organizations have been recognized as “foreign agent mass media”, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and various TV channels and websites.
The new rules apply the controversial status of “foreign agent” to media organizations for the first time. Previously, a similar regime applied only to certain nonprofit organizations that received foreign financing and engaged in politics, based on rules adopted in 2012. Among other requirements, foreign agent mass media are required to include a special disclaimer in every publication or post identifying their status as foreign agents. In addition, they must maintain separate accounting for funds and property received from foreign sources, submit quarterly reports on their funding, and publish activity reports semiannually.
In January 2018, the Russian parliament began work on a draft law that would impose administrative fines on foreign agent mass media for noncompliance with the rules. These may range up to 5 million rubles ($86,000) for companies or organizations. For relevant individuals, such as officers or managers, the penalties may include fines up to 100,000 rubles ($1,700) or “administrative arrest” for up to 15 days.