- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

President Vladimir Putin’s top attorney said Wednesday that new legislation is in the works to give Russian authorities the power to unilaterally block access to websites containing information about unsanctioned political protests and demonstrations.

Amid an ongoing crackdown against free assembly — and with less than two years until the next presidential election — Russian Attorney General Yuri Chaika told federal lawmakers at a meeting Wednesday that regional authorities must be able to censor certain websites without needing to acquire a court order first.

As it currently stands, a court order or a ruling from either the attorney general or Russia’s internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, is required before authorities are allowed to block access to websites deemed in violation of Russian law.

During Wednesday’s meeting at the State Duma, however, Mr. Chaika said he’s preparing legislation that would allow regional prosecutors to extrajudicially block websites where protests are discussed in advance — an authority that currently applies to websites accused of spreading extremism, the Medusa news site reported Wednesday.

In the same vein, Mr. Chaika said, new legislation could allow authorities to prevent Russian citizens from accessing websites containing information on unauthorized mass actions and illegal public events, according to Russia’s Interfax news wire. Administrators of censored sites would then be able to appeal the ruling with the country’s internet regulator, he added.

Roskomnadzor, the government’s watchdog, has blocked access to more than 1,000 websites and ordered content removed from roughly 10,000 others over the last two-and-a-half years, Mr. Chaika said. But due to the “rapid development of Internet technology” and the likelihood of protests ahead of next year’s election, however, the prosector said the ability to censor websites must be expanded as soon as possible.

“It is advisable to further develop the legal framework in this sphere,” Mr. Chaika said, according to an English-language translation of his remarks. 

Existing law currently allows Russian authorities to block access to websites alleged to contain information harmful to children, and was utilized during the last year in order to briefly blacklist the entirety of Reddit and Wikipedia over entries describing illegal drugs. On Tuesday this week, Roskomnadzor asked Russian internet service providers to block access to a 2012 article on Vice.com because it purportedly advocated shoplifting.

Protests held without government permission, meanwhile, are illegal under a Russian law prohibiting unsanctioned gatherings, meetings, demonstrations, marches or rallies. Around 20 members of the LGBT community in St. Petersburg were arrested during a May Day parade last month for protesting without a permit — a demonstration that organizers said they had managed to get off the group despite their official website and social media pages being blocked by Roskomnadzor.

Mr. Chaika was named Russia’s prosecutor general by Mr. Putin in 2006, and was the subject of a song released by controversial protest-punk band Pussy Riot, “Chaika,” earlier this year. When the group released a music video for the tune in February, its members said in a statement that they intended “to convince people that we cannot live in a country where its top law enforcement official is the brightest symbol of corruption and murder.”

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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