Russia’s media regulation agency Roskomnadzor announced Wednesday that it will create a public database of “fake news,” using new authority granted to the agency by President Vladimir Putin with a controversial Internet law signed at the beginning of the month.
Russia’s “sovereign Internet” law strives to separate Russia from the global Internet by routing all traffic through servers controlled by Moscow, ostensibly so foreign adversaries such as the United States would become unable to shut Russian networks down. Critics said the law paved the way for even more strict government control of Internet content, on par with China’s censorship mania.
Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov took a major step in that grim direction on Wednesday, as reported by the Moscow Times:
On Wednesday, Zharov was reported to have announced a public registry of so-called unreliable news sources. Offending online news outlets and posts could be legally blocked if the “fake news” is not voluntarily deleted.
“The platform titles and the authors’ last names will be posted on our website,” Zharov was quoted as saying at a “truth and justice” forum in southern Russia by the state-run TASS news agency.
The name-and-shame approach has also been used in Russia’s lower chamber of parliament. Its speaker said in February he hoped the online wall of shame would help parliamentarians “think before they speak” and deter them from making “stupid” comments.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has run its own “fake news-busting” website for more than two years, superimposing a seal saying “FAKE” in red letters on screenshots of disputed articles.
There is a considerable difference between “name and shame” tactics, and even the most biased of “fact checking” operations, versus outright blocking of websites flagged by a “fake news” database.
Pulling off that level of censorship may prove difficult, as some companies operating in Russia have resisted demands to make their Virtual Private Network (VPN) servers compliant with Moscow’s demands. VPNs are often used by people in authoritarian countries to bypass government website blacklists.
Russia backed away from some of its “sovereign Internet” ideas in international forums held after the new Internet law was signed, possibly because foreign companies are growing nervous about doing business on the Russian Internet, and the stagnant Russian economy desperately needs their commerce.
Russian users had more time to grow accustomed to services and platforms that have long been forbidden in China and would grow restless if those services were suddenly blocked by blacklists. Russians have good reason to be nervous when they hear about Roskomnadzor setting up a “fake news” database since Moscow’s efforts at controlling digital information tend to be ham-fisted disasters.