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In Russia, a Proposal to Store User Data on Russian Soil Will "Throttle Expression," Activists Say

BY Antonella Napolitano | Thursday, April 17 2014

Facebook's first built-from-scratch data center. The company recently opened one In Sweden (Photo: Intel Free Press/Flickr)

“Can we be confident in the security of our personal data on the Internet? Doubtful. […] Snowden has confirmed that the largest intelligence-gathering corporation there is—the US National Security Agency—is monitoring our social media accounts. In fact, they can use the data at their own discretion.”

At a first glance, those words may seem like the rant of a digital rights activist or part of a news article on NSAgate.

They belong instead to Alexey Lisovenko, a member of the Moscow City Council, who has recently proposed that all personal data of Russians from all social media sites should be housed in servers located on Russian soil.

“Today, every Russian has on average five accounts in various Internet resources, and three of them are on social networks,” Lisovenko wrote in a plea to Sergey Zhelezniak, a deputy in Russia's Duma or lower house of Parliament, asking him to pass the legislation. “All information about us is going back to where the resource server is installed, i.e. outside the Russian Federation, and it means that we can no longer manage their [the citizens] personal information.”

According to Global Voices' Kevin Rothrock, Zhelezniak gave a speech in parliament, “advocating exactly what the city councilman asks today: relocating servers to sovereign Russian soil.”

Russia has its own surveillance system, Peter Micek, Policy Counsel at digital rights organization Access Now, explained to techPresident: “The Russian government has some of the most sophisticated and pervasive surveillance in the world. For instance, its security forces enjoy direct access to telecommunications networks through the SORM system.”

SORM stands for "System for Operative Investigative Activities" and allows for Internet searches and surveillance. It was brought to attention during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Micek also added that “localization of user data on Russian soil would make it that much easier for police to locate, track, and retaliate against users for their political, religious, and other expression.”

These are the main concerns of organizations like “Our users' safety is the most worrying issue: many of them are actively challenging the authority of the Russian government,” says Jake Brewer, who leads the External Affairs Team at

Brewer also told techPresident that has 2.5 million users in the country. (Editor's Note: Brewer will be a speaker at techPresident's PDF14)

The most popular petitions in the country are those opposing Russia's legislation on LGBT issues. In July 2013, President Putin signed a very controversial law that banned “homosexual propaganda to children.”

Fines for individuals who use mass media or the Internet to propagate homosexual material to minors amount to as much as 100,000 rubles (USD$2,800). Last year, Moscow City Court upheld the city’s decision to ban gay pride parades for the next 100 years.

Russia and Dissent: An Escalating Strategy?

If enacted, this law that would base social media servers in Russia, would represent yet another step in the Russian government's crackdown on dissent.

In 2012, the Russian Parliament introduced a law that required NGOs that receive funding from outside Russia to register as a “foreign agent” (a word that in Russian has strong associations with cold war-era espionage).

The GOLOS Association, Russia's only independent election monitoring organization, was fined $10,000 for failing to register under the law and later suspended for six months.

Most recently, as reported by techPresident's Jessica McKenzie, two members of the Russian parliament have proposed regulating popular bloggers (those with an audience of 3,000 or more unique visitors a day) exactly as they regulate mass media outlets, including registration of the blog, mandatory fact checking and the assumption of responsibility for the consequences of what they write.

Moscow Councilman Lisovenko is an active social media user, with accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Could this be a first step in an escalating strategy to control social media as we are seeing in other parts of the world?

“Venezuela and Turkey’s recent attempts to block certain online services come to mind, and Egypt led a high profile assault on foreign NGOs," says Micek. "These are all attempts to limit dissent, and control the political discourse. Governments have decades of expertise in censoring and repressing traditional media outlets, and are now experimenting and learning how to throttle expression online.”

Crackdown on Dissent: A Geopolitical Issue

In our Skype conversation, Brewer told me what his organization is trying to do to address the repression of dissent and the issue of online safety: there have been talks between policy teams to coordinate efforts with digital rights organizations and a conversation about the subject among European policymakers.

Brewer also mentioned the anti-hate speech and anti-discrimination policy that has in place: they proactively block petitions that encourage discrimination or hate speech ( terms of service mention "hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable" content). He acknowledged, though, that those issues remain very much open and controversial, as their user base is growing in countries that are culturally very different.

In Turkey, for example, users can start a petition against the actions of political and even religious figures, but are not allowed to start a petition to criticize Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he told me. Atatürk was the first president of Turkey credited with being the founder of the Republic. A petition like that would expose people to legal prosecution, as in 1951 the Turkish parliament outlawed insults of the first President.

“Open Internet platforms try to separate themselves from the users,” Brewer said during our interview, “We care about empowering them, but we also want to protect them."

Somewhat ironically, protecting users is also ostensibly the motivation of Councilman Livosenko and his proposal. "Unfortunately, we can not protect personal data and personal information of our compatriots, as long as the servers' resources are not located on the territory of the Russian Federation," his proposal reads. “In my opinion, social networks, which [...] are placing information on servers located outside the territory of the Russian Federation should be blocked."

Access Now's Micek doesn't think there is an actual risk for Western tech companies, though: “It is not likely that Facebook or Twitter would comply, he told techPresident. "Technically, implementing this would be extremely difficult. Today, content providers and popular platforms divide a user's data into bits and pieces, located in servers all over the world. It may not be technically possible to comply with a law requiring localized data.”

(To techPresident's inquiry on the matter, Facebook's European Communication office responded that they have nothing to say in talks about this.)

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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