On March 4, Russia held a Presidential election in which
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was returned to the Presidency for a third
non-consecutive term. However, the
opposition and protestors allege widespread vote fraud, and thousands rallied
in Moscow the day after the election.
These mass demonstrations, and those in December around Russia’s
parliamentary elections, were informed and organized by utilizing social
networks and the Internet. Once
again, we see the Internet contributing to the peaceful stirrings of democracy
against an authoritarian regime, and the United States Congress should do what
it can to safeguard Internet freedom in Russia.
Russia has not had systemic blocking of the Internet like
China’s Great Firewall. However, in
its 2011 Enemies of
the Internet report, Reporters Without Borders characterized Russia as a
“Country Under Surveillance,” stating that “The Internet, a space where
independent voices still find expression, is now being targeted by the
authorities, who are trying to develop online filtering and surveillance.” During the recent protests, there were
reports of jammed mobile Internet services and spam attacks against opposition
websites and news portals. In
Russian Interior Minister called for limits on the Internet to prevent a slide
in traditional cultural values among young people. In September, the prosecutor general stated that, “It is evident that we need to bring social networks
under reasonable control – simply to protect citizens’ freedoms.” And as seen in a CCIA blog post last
week (“Tensions Rise in Global Battle Over Internet Freedom as UN Discusses
Human Rights Online”), Russia joined China and 28 other countries in a
statement emphasizing the dangers of a free Internet and the need to strengthen
government regulation of the Internet.
At a time when the
Russian government’s stance on Internet freedom is clearly worsening, Congress
must highlight the importance of this issue in debating the fate of Jackson-Vanik. As the United Nations Human Rights
Council has taken up the Internet freedom issue, so must Congress in
determining whether to repeal legislation originally intended to target human
rights violations in the USSR.
David Kramer, President of Freedom House, stated at a Heritage
last week that it would be seen as a tremendous sign of weakness were the U.S.
to graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik without putting anything else addressing
human rights in its place.
A Russian human rights
bill sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) could play
a significant role in the Jackson-Vanik debate. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (S.
1039) is named for a Russian whistleblower who had been investigating
official corruption when he was taken into custody, beaten and then died in
custody. The bill would impose
financial sanctions and visa restrictions on individuals complicit in
Magnitsky’s detention, abuse and death, or in the crimes he was
investigating. The bill also
targets individuals responsible for extrajudicial killings,
torture, or other gross human rights violations committed against individuals
seeking to exercise or promote internationally recognized human rights,
including freedom of expression. Perhaps
an approach like the Magnitsky Act, clarifying that Internet censorship is a
human rights violation for which Russian government officials would be held
accountable, can result in an effective 21st century update of the
U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy.