Two recent independent reports paint a bleak picture of Internet freedom in Russia.

Freedom House, which monitors Internet freedom in 65 countries, for the first time ranked Russia as “not free,” the lowest of three possible rankings. “We’ve seen a continual deterioration of Internet freedom in Russia over the past five years,” said Adrian Shahbaz, a research manager for Freedom on the Net, Freedom House’s annual assessment of global Internet freedom.

Shahbaz blames this deterioration on the Russian government’s sophisticated surveillance apparatus (which he says violates standards of the European Court of Human Rights), as well as on the prosecution of activists for their online activities and increasing censorship of news sites and opposition blogs.

Woman on street looking at her mobile phone as people walk by (Shutterstock)
Recent Russian laws harm access to information. (Shutterstock)

Shahbaz says Freedom House’s rankings are based on factors including a country’s telecom market, the level of censorship and surveillance, and the legal environment. “When a country is ranked ‘not free,’ it’s generally due to state authorities using the full toolbox of repression in order to restrict the country’s online sphere,” Shahbaz said.

According to the report, a “steeper decline” in the already “steadily shrinking” digital freedom in Russia took place from 2013 to 2014, following the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s purported annexation of Crimea.

During that period, authorities significantly increased censorship of content critical of Russia’s policies in Ukraine, including information related to anti-government protests. Certain topics covered online — such as corruption, blasphemy and LGBTI issues — were also censored.

At the same time, the government passed a series of laws on “extremism, nongovernmental organizations and data localization that, due to their broad nature and problematic application, have had a massive effect on Internet users and human rights groups,” according to Shahbaz.

Agora reports increased limitations on Internet freedom

Agora — a Russian civil society organization that also reports on Internet freedom — notes in its annual report a fivefold increase in the number of “Internet freedom limitations” in Russia in 2015.

The total of 15,022 instances reflects a growing number of criminal prosecutions (including prison sentences) of Russian citizens for “expressing opinions,” as well as a significant number of violent attacks and threats against Internet activists.

These threats and attacks are occurring in more regions of Russia than ever before, the report says. In one year, 18 people received prison sentences, while 28 bloggers or Internet journalists suffered violent attacks or threats.

People standing in crowd holding flags and sign (© AP Images)
Russians yell slogans and hold a sign reading, “NO to censorship in the media” in Moscow in 2010. (© AP Images)

Agora explains that the level of violence is due to the “absence of effective investigations of attacks.” This gives a sense of impunity to those committing the attacks and provokes further attacks, the organization says. In the past five years, it has documented at least 90 cases of violence in connection with digital activism.

On February 10, Agora itself fell victim to harsh censorship, as it became the first organization in Russia to be shut down by a court ruling under the foreign agents law.

Russia’s parliament adopted the law in 2012, requiring nongovernmental organizations to register with the Ministry of Justice as foreign agents if they engage in political activity and receive foreign funding. The law’s definition of political activity is broad and vague, so much so that it can extend to all aspects of advocacy and human rights work.

Blocking and filtering online information remains the favored Kremlin tool for hampering Internet freedom. But as digital activists have discovered new ways to bypass such blocks, the state recently shifted its strategy toward putting pressure on individuals, according to Agora.

“Real prison sentences for ‘likes’ and reposts are meant to frighten citizens into giving up discussions of relevant societal problems,” the Agora report concludes.