Online Activism On Russia Election Underscores Need To Protect Internet Freedom

March 9, 2012

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 August, the 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 Foundation panel 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.

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