German-Russian Digital Civil Society Talks

The Russian Govern­ment is trying to get access to the internet – perhaps the most important refuge for freedom of speech. Cyber­space is increas­ingly restricted through state censor­ship: state pressure on internet service providers is increasing, controls over content are tight­ening and new ways to maintain extensive network surveil­lance keep being developed. LibMod and the Sakharov Center are bringing internet activists from Russia and Germany together to discuss what should be done to help keep the internet a space where free thinking is possible. The project “German-Russian Digital Civil Society Talks” is funded by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office.

In Germany, many think of the Internet as a recruiting ground for extrem­ists; in Russia, it is seen as one of the last places where democrats can speak freely. While Germany’s Govern­ment strives to stem the flood of hate online, the Kremlin has begun to detach the internet within its domain from the rest of the world wide web.

The cyber-policy debates in the two countries are shaped by these very different situ­a­tions, as was very apparent at a symposium held in Moscow on 24 October 2019 by the Center for Liberal Modernity and the Sakharov Center.

Experts and activists from Russia and Germany debated issues like regu­la­tion of the internet, hate speech, copyright and the chances and chal­lenges for civil society on the web.

Internet censor­ship has long been a reality in Russia. The state can easily restrict internet activ­i­ties because its legal status is the same as that of other of forms of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion, as Alexander Isavnin from Roskomsvo­boda, perhaps Russia’s most prominent group of internet activists, explained.

Russian partic­i­pants against regulation

Russian ISPs have been required by law to record and store all commu­ni­cated content and connec­tion data trans­mitted through their servers since 2018. The number of websites blocked in Russia rises contin­u­ally; Roskomsvo­boda placed the total at more than 294,000 in late October. Along with child-pornog­raphy sites and sites posting instruc­tions for terror­ists, the blacklist contains numerous political sites, such as and Ukrainian news websites.

Isavnin called for efforts to preserve the freedom of the web. Internet companies like Google and Facebook should comply with inter­na­tional standards, but kindly refrain from doing so with respect to national legis­la­tion like that of Russia, for instance.

This elicited protest from Jörn Pohl, cyber and internet policy expert on the staff of Konstantin von Notz, Member of the Bundestag for the Green Party. Pohl sees a clear need for the national regu­la­tion of internet giants. As an example, he noted Germany has a good reason for the prohi­bi­tion of the display of swastikas. After years of stalling on Facebook’s part, the Cali­fornia-based company has finally agreed to create hundreds of jobs in Berlin to ensure that content flagged as illegal is genuinely subject to review in a notice and action procedure, as required by German law, and is in fact always deleted when this is called for in clear, lawful regulations.

Non-trans­parent removal-of-content procedures

Among other things, Pohl mentioned the infor­ma­tion wars currently being waged “with bots, trolls and hackers on the web”. “Inter­na­tion­ally, people are increas­ingly coming to accept that more lawful regu­la­tion is urgently needed,” he said. As a case in point, he cited the EU’s recently adopted data protec­tion rules, which are seen as the gold standard in the USA and Israel and being copied there. Good regu­la­tion both protects the funda­mental rights of users and provides the legal certainty that tech companies need.

Isavnin countered this by noting that Russian politi­cians are fond of pointing to Germany when justi­fying their most recent restric­tions. The Russian parlia­ment is currently consid­ering draft legis­la­tion modelled on Germany’s Network Enforce­ment Act (NetzDG): adopted by the Bundestag in 2017, this statute requires social network operators to delete hate speech and false reports. However, the Russian version of the legis­la­tion does not require removal-of-content proce­dures to be transparent.

Miro Dittrich, from the Amadeo Antonio Foun­da­tion, described the Network Enforce­ment Act as necessary to ensure that activ­i­ties that are illegal offline continue to be illegal online as well. He pointed to the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which was largely organised via Facebook, as a relevant case. “There are limits, points at which inter­fer­ence is imperative.”

Dittrich argued that moder­a­tion fosters freedom of speech in this context by enabling people to express them­selves freely without having to fear that they will become a target for abuse. Imple­men­ta­tion is the tricky part, in his view, because content moder­a­tors are often poorly trained and a lot of content is removed unnecessarily.

Abuse of copyright

A call to place less reliance on moder­a­tion to achieve this end came from Julia Krüger from She advocated better ranking of good content and taking action against echo chambers in which users become radi­calised. “There are 1,000 different ways to do this”, she said.

Several partic­i­pants spoke of the frequent misuse of copyright complaints as a way of suppressing infor­ma­tion. For instance, it was pointed out that German media has been hesitant to publish state documents since the defence ministry sued WAZ, a daily based in Essen, for copyright infringe­ment for publishing papers on the Bundeswehr’s deploy­ment in Afghanistan. For this reason, according to Johannes Filter from the initia­tive, copyright law, which orig­i­nated largely in the 19th century, should not apply to govern­ment documents.

Here again, it was the Russian partic­i­pants who argued for less regu­la­tion. Isavnin pointed out that the once pervasive problem of piracy of films and music had become far less dramatic, as artists and rights holders could better cater to user demand, e.g. through streaming portals.

Cyber expert Pohl objected again: “The notion that every­thing should be free because there is always some way one can get around restric­tions is unsound from a rule of law perspec­tive”. Pohl expressed under­standing for the urge to circum­vent blocks, given the prob­lem­atic nature of the relevant legis­la­tion in terms of the rule of law, but argued that activists should use their scanty resources by joining forces to get the relevant legis­la­tion changed and keep access to knowledge freely available.

How can demo­c­ratic values be preserved in the digital world?

One step might be the intro­duc­tion of a flat-rate levy on cultural content, which could render the pros­e­cu­tion of users for copyright infringe­ment largely obsolete while guar­an­teeing fair compen­sa­tion to creatives.

Finally, the debate focussed on how one could keep up the same values in two entirely different systems. LibMod’s managing director Ralf Fücks noted at the start of the symposium that the internet is a very important forum for civil society due to the increasing “coor­di­na­tion” (Gleich­schal­tung) of the classic media. In Germany, by contrast, the emphasis is on regu­la­tion – as a way of binding inter­na­tional corpo­ra­tions to standards and containing the “brutal­i­sa­tion of commu­ni­ca­tion”. It is clear, as Fücks empha­sized, that our rules “must not open the door for author­i­tarian regimes to cite the example of demo­c­ratic countries to legit­imise their efforts to muzzle the internet in their own countries.”

It may be a long time before the debates in Russia and Germany become more similar. Until then, there remains the hope that lax imple­men­ta­tion will allow civil society to circum­vent the restric­tive Russian legis­la­tion. This symposium made it vividly clear that both sides have much to learn from an exchange on their differing approaches to these issues.