Damir Gainutdinov: The trend towards censorship - the ECtHR concerned by widespread blocking of websites in Russia

posted 12 Oct 2017, 02:09 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 12 Oct 2017, 02:17 ]
24 September 2017

By Damir Gainutdinov, legal analyst for the International Human Rights Group Agora

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: 
Radio Svoboda]

The European Court of Human Rights has been alerted to the widespread problem of website blocking in Russia, with six applications lodged in relation to blocked websites in the last few months alone. This is telling, given that only 26 rulings have been handed down on cases involving freedom of expression (under Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) since Russia acceded to the Council of Europe.

The applications lodged by Russian citizens relate to different aspects of the problem of blocked websites. The case brought by Vladimir Kharitonov, executive director of the Association of Internet Publishers, relates to “collateral blocking”, or in other words the blocking of innocent sites which no one suspects of wrongdoing (by way of analogy to the term “collateral damage”). Such instances occur when the authorities take an indiscriminate approach to the taking down of unlawful content.

The cases involving Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru and Ezhednevny zhurnal relate to extrajudicial blockings of media websites, resulting in the forced shut-down of media outlets without the supposedly necessary court decision.

It emerged in court that the authorities had insisted on the blocking of entire websites even if only a single instance of unlawful material had been found. The submissions by the public prosecutor’s office stated that the websites contained, “a significant proportion of unlawful material”, allegedly justifying the decision to block access to the entire website. During the trials, however, we succeeded in obtaining print-outs of the relevant webpages from Roskomnadzor. The public prosecutors and the representatives of Roskomnadzor were not even able to agree amongst themselves on whether the case related to a single webpage or the entire website. The police are undoubtedly more honest that the public prosecutors, since their approach makes it quite clear that the authorities are opposed to the existence of similar websites. After all, there can be no question about the fact that the authorities’ ultimate goal in these cases was to destroy the independent media.

The Roskomsvododa case involves the blocking of an NGO’s website on the basis of a court decision handed down on fabricated grounds, corresponding to a prohibition on the dissemination of information on means of accessing blocked websites and ensuring anonymity on the Internet, even though no such prohibition exists in law. The decision was furthermore handed down surreptitiously, without notifying the website owner.

The four problems described above – collateral blockings, wholesale blockings of large websites due to a single webpage, a prohibition on descriptions of ways to circumvent the blockings and the failure to involve the relevant parties in investigations – are the focus of criticism against the Russian authorities. It is very much to be welcomed that the ECtHR has taken an interest in all of them, since this means that there is a viable chance in the foreseeable future that the Court will examine all the key aspects of censorship of the Internet in Russia. [Read more in Russian]

Translated by Joanne Reynolds