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 kasparov.ru 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 netzpolitik.org. 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 Fragdenstaat.de, 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.