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.