Russia #KeepItOn elections

#KeepItOn: Russian authorities and ISPs must safeguard free, open, and secure internet access during upcoming presidential elections

For the attention of His Excellency Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, 

CC: Mikhail Mishustin, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation; Maksut Shadaev, Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media; Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Maxim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development; Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the Russian President; Alexander Bortnikov, Director of Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation;  and Anton Gorelkin, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technologies, and Communications. 

CC: Mikhail Oseevsky, CEO, PJSC Rostelecom; Vyacheslav Nikolaev, CEO, MTS Russia PJSC, Khachatur Pombukhchan, CEO, MegaFon PJSC Alexander Torbakhov, CEO, PJSC VimpelCom (Beeline Russia); Roman Kravtsov, CEO, JSC “Company TransTeleCom”; and Denis Ganza, CEO, JSC Rascom.

During important national events, people need open, free, and secure internet access. During this week’s presidential elections, Russia must #KeepItOn.

We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 organizations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — appeal to you, President Vladimir Putin, to publicly pledge support for maintaining free, open, and secure internet access before, during, and after the presidential elections scheduled for March 15-17.

As people in Russia prepare to vote, your government must adopt, implement, and enforce measures to ensure everyone can access information, express themselves, and freely associate or assemble, whether online or offline. 

In a democratic society, the internet and social media platforms help enhance participatory governance, advance democratic inclusion and election transparency, and enable people to exercise their fundamental human rights — all principles enshrined in the Constitution of Russia. Online platforms enable public discourse about election processes and political candidates, and allow voters to hold governments accountable for their actions. Internet access also facilitates the essential work of journalists, human rights defenders, and election observers who monitor, document, and report on election processes. 

Shutting down the internet is bad for people — and for business 

Internet shutdowns and violence often go hand-in-hand. Shutting down the internet during conflict, protests, or public health emergencies restricts the availability of vital, timely, and potentially life-saving information, as well as access to emergency services. This can exacerbate existing tensions, instigate or conceal violence and human rights violations, or spread misinformation. Internet shutdowns also impact people’s livelihoods and entire economies, costing countries, businesses, and public organizations that rely on the digital economy billions of dollars

Shutdowns contravene national and international laws 

Imposing internet shutdowns violates fundamental human rights guaranteed by national, regional, and international frameworks, including the Constitution of the Russian Federation (Articles 29 and 31), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Russia. 

The UN Human Rights Committee, as the official interpreter of the ICCPR, emphasized in its General Comment No. 37 that “state parties must not, for example, block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies.” Moreover, the UN Secretary General and other experts have affirmed that, “blanket internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.”  

Telcos must respect human rights and provide access to remedy 

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, businesses are responsible for preventing or mitigating any potential human rights harms they may cause or contribute to, and for providing remedies for any harms  when and if they occur. Telecommunications and internet service providers (ISPs) operating in Russia — including PJSC Rostelecom, MTS Russia PJSC, MegaFon PJSC, PJSC VimpelCom (Beeline Russia) JSC Company TransTeleCom, and JSC Rascom — must provide quality, open, and secure access to the internet and digital communication tools. 

Internet shutdowns should never become a norm, whether in Russia or elsewhere. We encourage businesses in Russia to integrate the UN Principles and OECD Guidelines when responding to censorship and network disruption requests, in any market where they operate. 

Russia’s history of internet shutdowns 

Russia has a long history of internet shutdowns, targeting companies that refuse to comply with censorship orders and throttling internet access during moments of civil unrest. 

In 2022, authorities blocked access to X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and Facebook, adding Meta to a list of terrorist and extremist organizations. This came hot on the heels of Russian censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, throttling Twitter in 2021.  And in 2020, Russia tried unsuccessfully to block Telegram, fining the company for non-compliance with the country’s anti-terrorist legislation, also known as the Yarovaya Law

In both 2018 and 2019, local government in the Russian republic of Ingushetia shut down mobile internet access during peaceful protests against a border agreement with the neighboring republic of Chechnya. And in July and August 2019, Moscow’s authorities jammed mobile internet during election protests. 

This pattern of censorship and crackdowns has continued into 2024. In January, Telegram and WhatsApp were throttled in Primorsky, Khabarovsk, Amur, Yakutia, and Sakhalin. YouTube appears to have been throttled in seven Russian regions, affecting videos from channels with over 50,000 subscribers. In March, after a new law banned the advertisement or promotion of virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent censorship Roskomnadzor demanded that 34 online platforms delete content referencing VPNs, reportedly blocking any platform that refused to comply. And most recently, internet connectivity was throttled during the Moscow funeral of Russian opposition member and activist Alexei Navalny

Our recommendations 

For the Russian government 

We call on you to:

  • Ensure that, across Russia, the internet, social media platforms, and other digital communication channels remain open, accessible, and secure before, during, and after the elections, including during any related  civic unrest;
  • Refrain from shutting down, throttling, or blocking the internet, or from imposing any unlawful future restrictions on internet access and telecommunications;
  • Repeal and amend any laws and policies that legitimize internet shutdowns or that outlaw the usage of VPNs, and enact rights-respecting laws that align and comply with Russia’s international human rights obligations.

For telecommunications providers

  • Preserve evidence and disclose demands from Russia’s government pressuring you to disrupt internet access, or to conceal their demands;
  • Publicly disclose details of any internet or online service disruptions, including when they occurred, their status throughout the shutdown, and when they come back online;
  • Consult and coordinate with civil society and peer companies to push back against government censorship demands, as well as issuing regular transparency reports to safeguard open and secure internet access and to deter future shutdown orders.

Please let us know how the #KeepItOn coalition can support you in upholding a free, open, secure, inclusive, and accessible internet for all people in Russia.

Yours sincerely, 

Signatories:

  • Access Now
  • Avocats Sans Frontières France
  • Africa Freedom of Expression  Exchange (AFEX)
  • Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
  • Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Common Cause Zambia 
  • Computech Institute
  • Digital Grassroots 
  • Digital Rights Kashmir
  • Human Constanta
  • Human Rights Journalists Network Nigeria 
  • Internet Protection Society (Russia in-exile)
  • Kijiji Yeetu
  • Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
  • Miaan Group
  • ONG Women Be Free
  • OONI (Open Observatory of Network Interference)
  • Na Svyazi 
  • RosKomSvoboda
  • Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet)
  • The Tor Project
  • Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC-Nigeria)
  • Organization of the Justice Campaign‏ (OJC)