Damir Gainutdinov: Unblocking Online Services Could Take Years - Victims of Roskomnadzor get ready to go to court

posted 6 May 2018, 10:37 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 May 2018, 10:41 ]
18 April 2018

Damir Gainutdinov of Agora talks with Novaya Gazeta correspondent Vera Yurchenko [extract]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source Novaya Gazeta]

On 17th April, the international human rights group Agora launched a hotline for owners of sites and services that were experiencing problems due to the blocking – by Roskomnadzor [the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media] - of millions of IP addresses linked to the cloud platforms Amazon and Google. Within 24 hours about a hundred people whose businesses had encountered losses, presumably because of the unprofessional actions of officials of the regulatory body, contacted lawyers. Roskomnadzor itself states that no such problem exists. They say that the blocks concern 99.9% of the subnetworks that Telegram had been using and that the number of bona fide platforms affected by their actions is minimal. Novaya Gazeta correspondent Vera Yurchenko spoke with Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer with the Agora human rights group.

Since 16th April, Roskomnadzor has increased the number of blocked IP-addresses to 18 million - an absolute record in the history of Russian censorship on the Internet. The blocks has affected not so much Telegram, which, despite everything, continues to be available to users in Russia, as other services, from computer games to payment systems. The system of censorship that has been built in Russia is unworkable and these actions are unlikely to have a positive impact on the career of the head of Roskomnadzor, Aleksandr Zharov. It is more likely that the authorities will draw a lesson from the case of Telegram and will continue to build the "sovereign Internet," only on a new technological and legislative level so as to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Meanwhile, an influential human rights organisation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has appealed to Google and Amazon, asking them to support Telegram in the fight against Russian censorship.

Roskomnadzor is in talks with the major American companies, urging them to ban Pavel Durov’s messaging system from using cloud services to bypass the blocking. Parallel to this, Zharov announced that Facebook, which has not been fulfilling Russian legal requirements on the storage of personal data on the territory of the Russian Federation, may be blocked before the end of 2018. The future of RuNet [the Russian Internet] depends on whether the leaders of the global IT industry will give into the blackmail of Russian officials. A consolidated industry response, aimed at protecting the interests of users, could lead to a possible loss for companies of the official Russian market, but it would greatly complicate the life of our censors.

The arguments of officials, who maintain that Telegram is the messenger of terrorists, does not, of course, stand up to criticism. Professional criminals would be able to transmit information even in a scenario where the internet was inaccessible to ordinary citizens. In addition, WhatsApp remains the largest messenger on the Russian market not cooperating with the FSB. If there was indeed a terrorist threat, then censors should have blocked all such systems at the same time. What we have before us is blackmail - an attempt to squeeze out Durov’s business, founded in Russia, in order to then put pressure on the rest of the market players. There is also an ironic view of things which suggests that Roskomnadzor is simply lobbying on behalf of the interests of American companies in Russia and that it will then block them last of all. […]

What means are there to protect the victims of Roskomnadzor’s actions?

There are legal grounds for those who either received a request from Roskomnadzor to delete something, or those whose site was blocked because of the block on Telegram, to go to court. You can file a complaint in a court of general jurisdiction under administrative proceedings, or, if the site is commercial, proceed via arbitration. Arbitration courts have retained an image of a more independent authority, though this is somewhat notional. If the court classes Roskomnadzor’s actions as illegal, it will be possible to demand compensation for the harm done, but it is more likely that Russian courts will refuse to protect the rights of citizens and companies. Once someone has gone through this process four times they can then appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECtHR has already examined similar cases relating to internet blocks. In the autumn, the case of Vladimir Kharitonov - the director of the Association of Internet Publishers - was communicated. During the winter, we exchanged views with the government, and are now awaiting a judgment in this case. The president of the relevant ECtHR section considered Kharitonov’s case to be one that demonstrated the systemic problem of legislation and its application in our country. This means that the European Court believes that the blocking of IP addresses en masse - which has impacted ordinary platforms - needs addressing. So the chances of those affected are very good at the ECtHR. However, this is, by no means a quick process.

Will Agora take up the cases of companies that have suffered because of Rockomnadzor’s actions?

In one way or another yes, but it all depends on the number of those appealing. It is physically impossible for us to participate in hundreds of cases all over the country. There are other options - we can advise, or help in the preparation of procedural documents. By the way, about twenty lawyers and solicitors got in touch with us ready to defend, pro bono, those who had been affected by the blocking. Maybe we will group cases together. At present it’s not that clear but it will get sorted in time. […]

Translated by Matthew Quigley