The recently signed package of anti-extremism amendments (collectively known as the Yarovaya Law) aims to combat terrorism in Russia. Instead, it gives Russian law enforcement agencies additional power and mechanisms to clamp down on popular dissent.
Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov (right), the Head of the Parliamentary Committee for Security and Anti-Corruption Irina Yarovaya during the meeting of Russia's ambassadors and permanent envoys. Photo: TASS
For another take read: "A crippling blow to the freedom of the Russian Internet"
Every day seemingly brings new initiatives directed against the Yarovaya Law – a set of stringent counter-terrorist amendments signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 7. In some cases, these initiatives are originating from the grassroots; in other cases, they are coming from the nation’s largest Internet and telecom companies.
For example, The Party of Growth plans to establish a special working group that will try to introduce changes to this legislation in the new Duma. Internet service providers are signing petitions and trying to lobby against the Yarovaya Law within the government. Facebook users are sharing funny posts about IT managers who ask the Federal Security Service (FSB) to send them a backup copy of their lost or damaged files.
However, don’t expect any changes anytime soon. These strict measures were devised by Russian law enforcement agencies (the so-called “siloviki”) and parliament’s sole job was to put the stamp of legislative approval on these measures.
Restrictions on civil freedoms and overwrought responses to the terrorist threat are commonplace in today’s world. There are aviation safety rules that are impossible to explain and exceptional powers provided to law enforcement agencies in the world’s most transparent and law-abiding democracies. Consider for a moment the unprecedented level of wiretapping of phone calls and emails denounced by American whistleblower and former CIA agent Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks editor and founder Julian Assange.
Every time human rights activists have tried to raise their voice against such uncontrolled growth of Big Brother, though, they have received what amounts to accusations of treason in reply from government authorities. The counter-terrorism struggle is sold to the public in a convincing way, as it is based on the primary security concerns of any citizen. No wonder different states like to exploit this topic and to add counter-terrorist labels to many activities that are distant from the real fight against terrorist organizations.
Russia is not an exception in this case. It is clear that during the ongoing economic crisis (which is allegedly nearly over) the authorities need additional measures of control. There are several reasons for that. One of them is the all-consuming focus on stability – social networks and text messenger services are regarded as the most efficient tools of regime change and information warfare (a notion that is, alas, difficult to refute). As such, the thinking goes, the government needs some form of oversight over them.
Besides, surveillance of digital communication provides for a surplus of resources in the power struggle – a post, a tweet, a text message, or a WhatsApp message can be a lucrative piece of compromising data that can be used to blackmail or to eliminate an opponent. This becomes particularly important as the struggle over a shrinking pie of national wealth intensifies.
Finally, this creates a perfect market for useless “services” that can be monetized by the authorities – or those close to them. Any constraints set up an alternative and privileged market for companies facilitating ways to comply with this new legislation. This includes all the support needed to comply with new data storage requirements, or “unofficial” help in finding loopholes (via connections with the “necessary people”). This is a strange but very rational way of gaining profits for the companies affiliated with the “siloviki” – and the new law on the management of personal data proves this trend.
This natural desire of any politician to control everything and to benefit from it, nonetheless, confronts common sense and the reality of the modern IT world. It makes little sense from the point of security to keep stockpiles of content for several months (or even longer), when there are more effective ways of penetrating someone’s privacy. It is costly not only for the Internet or mobile communication providers, but even for the state-run Russian Post, which requires 500 billion rubles ($7.8 billion) just to comply with the provisions of the law.
Other legislative initiatives to clamp down on personal freedoms that were not related to the IT sector have resulted in fewer protests, but they are no less important. For example, there are new regulations concerning the freedom of faith, which ban most “missionary activities.”
On the one hand, the government obviously wants to prevent the emergence of chaotic radical religious movements that would work outside the traditional sacred places (temples, mosques, etc.), and thus would be out of the realm of supervision.
On the other hand, if the law is carried out to the letter, this will lead to significant discomfort for loyal believers – one will not be able to invite a priest or a mullah at home for some rituals and it will be impossible to preach in public or organize events beyond the walls of a church or a mosque.
All these provisions run counter to basic Constitutional rights. However, this is usually not understood by the general public, and as a result, does not cause protests or concerns outside of the human rights community or the IT industry.
One may assume that such “tolerance” is one of the goals of the legislation. After all, in Russia, many laws are adopted not for the sake of being implemented, but rather, in order to keep all people “on alert,” so that everyone may realize that he or she is a potential violator and, therefore, is vulnerable to the people in power.
Another reason for the lack of mass protests is the lack of immediate economic effect – the prices for Internet or mobile connections may substantially grow or may stay intact (or grow slowly). The Russian mentality implies that the problem will be resolved by itself and perhaps as a result of this political passivity, nothing bad will happen after all.
Thus, the Yarovaya Law will hardly change the political landscape or lead to any unrest. Despite its apparent absurdity, it actually assists in achieving certain pragmatic political and economic goals. Hence, it is rational from the perspective of those who initiated and passed the legislation. If it weren't so, it would never have passed the second and the third reading in the Duma within less than half an hour.
The laws will not be very helpful in combating terrorism, but they will free the hand of the nation’s law enforcement agencies, enabling them to accomplish other tasks. In the short-term, this will lead to the strengthening of security. Over the long-term, the results are less obvious. It may be the case that further progress in technological development will eliminate the notion of privacy entirely and make such measures of control redundant.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.