Russia Update: Law on Personal Data Storage Goes Into Effect; Status of Social Media Uncertain

September 1, 2015
Vadim Ampilovsky, press spokesman for Roskomnadzor, the Russian state censor. Photo by ANO Radiochastotny-spektr.

Today, September 1, the much-anticipated Law on Storage of Personal Data, passed by President Vladimir Putin in 2014, went into effect

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

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Law on Russian Personal Data Storage Goes Into Effect Today, with Status of Social Media Uncertain

Today, September 1, the much-anticipated Law on Storage of Personal Data, passed by President Vladimir Putin in 2014, went into effect, Novaya Gazeta, RBC.ru and other Russian media reported.

Under this law, Internet service providers who handle Russian customer data are required to place their servers on Russian soil.

The law has caused a great deal of distress in the last year not only for individuals using the Internet but Russian companies who have built businesses around the Internet as well as foreign social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. There has been a lot of debate and conflicting interpretations of the law and threats to ban such services as Twitter if they refuse to comply with Russian requirements.

As with other draconian laws passed by Russia (the ban on foreign adoptions, the requirement that groups engaged in vague “political activity” register as “foreign agents,” the bloggers’ registration law), those affected address it with a range of responses from cooptation to defiance and bans.

How the law will actually be implemented remains to be seen, however, as Russian officials from Roskomnadzor, the state censor, have said they will not implement it until 2016, that is, the remainder of 2015 will be taken up with warnings not blockages.

Yet Russia has already begun blocking some sites; an order to block a page on cannabis in Wikipedia last week led briefly to blocking of all of Wikipedia because Wikipedia uses the https protocol; Internet Archive, or the “Wayback Machine,” which often retains copies of Internet pages that are deleted and is useful in battling Russian censorship has also been blocked ostensibly over a Syrian jihadist page.

Roskomnadzor will be in charge of administering the law and creating a register of companies that are in violation of the law, and will also block access to sites in the register. A court order will be required to enter or remove a company from the register. Violators face fines up to 300,000 rubles ($4,518).

Vladimir Ampelonsky, press secretary for Roskomnadzor told Interfax that the following companies had agreed to comply with the Russian requirements: eBay, PayPal, AliExpress, Samsung, Lenovo, Uber, Citybank, Booking.com. He added that as far as he knew, Samsung was opening its own data center in Russia to comply with the law. These companies have not made their own statements on the issue.

Ampelonsky said the companies that have not yet placed servers with Russian customer data in Russia are: Google, Facebook and Apple. He said his agency had held talks with Google and Facebook but not Apple. While Vedomosti reported that Facebook was refusing to place servers in Russia, Ampelonsky refuted this information at a meeting with social media representatives. He said 317 companies would be checked for compliance with the law by the end of the year.

Yet as RBC.ru reported, as many as 2.6 million companies in Russia could be affected by the measure.

Ampelonsky has become something of a colorful figure for bloggers. Last February he compared the circumvention software Tor with the tsarist-era district of Khitrovka, which was a known haunt for the underworld at the time. He said no doubt the tsarist police tolerated the area “because it was easier to keep track of the vampires all in one place.”

While protection of Russian citizens’ privacy — often an issue for the EU with regard to Google and other US companies — is ostensibly the motivation for this Russian law, the consensus is that it is more about gaining access to citizens’ communications to in fact erode their privacy and prevent opposition ideas and information from spreading.

Bloomberg reported that Google has moved its engineering office to Poland and Microsoft closed its Moscow development office for Skype, and Russian programmers are fleeing.

Bloomberg listed punitive measures against controversial Internet sites such as Reddit over a “magic mushroom” post as well as Lurkmore, the Russian equivalent of Encyclopedia Dramatica, and Lenta.ru’s interview with Right Sector’s Dmitro Yarosh:

Lurkmore founder Dmitry Homak fled Russia and now lives in Israel. “You can’t assure any investor that your site won’t be blocked, or that you won’t be labeled as a traitor or criminal,” he says.

“I’m just trying to recover. Everything I did for 15 years was stomped, crashed and burned.”

Galia Timchenko, the sacked Lenta.ru news editor, moved to Latvia to set up a new Russian news site, Meduza, which she says would be “much harder” to operate in Russia. “The situation is getting worse and worse by the day,” she says.

Even Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontakte, Russia’s most successful social network, quit after a lengthy dispute over Ukraine with the company’s new Putin-friendly owners.

The question is whether the Internet giants like Google will stand up to Russia as they once stood up to China by ultimately removing their servers from the country. Says Bloomberg:

All eyes are now on Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have been meeting with the Kremlin in private to make sense of the law. At this stage it’s not clear whether they will agree to comply. Google declined to comment. Facebook simply says it won’t comment on speculation, and that “we regularly meet with government officials and have nothing more to share at this time.”

Russian investigative journalist and author Andrei Soldatov thinks the lack of transparency is concerning. “If global companies agree to talk in secret, the Russian authorities will think they are ready to cooperate in more sensitive areas,” he says.

As long as the US companies don’t comment, Russian officials will continue to define the issue. Russian social media users themselves, although they have become dependent on US social media companies to circumvent their own country’s censorship, are unlikely to be in a position to fight the issue themselves, as reprisals again the opposition in the last four years have grown increasingly harsh. The most vivid example was the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who daily provided independent analyses of Russian politics and economy on his Facebook page.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick