Interview with Sergei Smirnov, Human Rights Online Russia

By EDRi · May 24, 2005

“Do what you must do and let come what may. Due to circumstances like the Putin presidency you can hope and you can make plans, more or less realistic, and work to get closer to your aim and to help people,” that’s the more or less stoic attitude that characterises Sergei Smirnov from the Russian Human Rights Network.

Smirnov (1973), with a degree in geophysics, lives in Moscow. He has been the co-ordinator of the Human Rights Network group since its foundation in 1997. He started his NGO career in 1992 as interpreter at the Moscow Research Centre for Human Rights. In 1993 he initiated the ‘Information Human Rights Network’ program to build a sustainable computerised network of human rights groups all over Russia. He distributed computer equipment and maintained Internet connections to over 40 Russian human rights groups from different regions of the country and conducted a number of technical workshops. More over, he edited the “Human Rights in Russia” bulletin from 1994 to 1997. In 1996, together with colleagues from Ryazan, he started the Human Rights Online website which by now is the largest source of information on human rights in Russia. Since 1998 he works on cyber-rights issues, including online privacy.

– Sergei, can you introduce the Human Rights Network?

“Human Rights Network is a small non-partisan, not-for-profit public organisation founded in 1997. The general aim is to build a civil society in Russia where human rights are considered fundamental values. Specifically we disseminate human rights materials on the Net and we provide support for interesting projects initiated by local human rights groups. The projects of the Human Rights Network have been supported by various foundations, including (but not limited to) the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy and others. The Human Rights Network now plays an important role by providing technical and informational support for Russian human rights community. Most of our events are online. For example, in 2003 and 2004 we organised campaigns where webmasters replaced the front pages of their sites with a black ‘memorial’ page and a candle image as signs of sorrow and protest in connection with the ongoing war in Chechnya. Among the off-line events we organised are two international conferences “Outlook for Freedom” (in 2000 and 2002, devoted to cyber-rights) and a number of seminars, workshops and discussions on public campaigns, networking and information security. Besides, Human Rights Network issued two reports on the situation with privacy in Russia and many articles on this topic.”

– Which problems do you encounter in demanding attention for human rights, especially digital civil rights?

“The biggest problem is indifference of Russian citizens to their rights, “legal nihilism”. If we talk about digital rights, especially privacy, many people (including some of our colleagues) reply “I don’t care about someone reading my personal data since I’ve nothing to hide” or “You’ve no chance to protect your rights in this country”. Other great problems we encounter are the growing government pressure and the lack of popularity of human rights groups in Russian society in general, perhaps partially due to the marginal and radical tradition of the human rights community and many of its activities.”

– In the western media, the policy of President Putin is depicted as increasingly authoritarian, with severe effects on the freedom of speech. Did your work change since President Putin came to power?

“I cannot say that the Human Rights Network itself suffered some shock or persecution. However, there are direct signs that human rights activities in this country have become more difficult.”

– The Russian minister of Science and Education supposedly said during a conference in Kyoto in November 2004 that internet access is dangerous for ordinary citizens, and “The government bears responsibility for control over the use of scientific technologies, including the Internet.”

“This was indistinct language. The minister was attacked immediately by the Russian media and Internet community and provided explanations. In all, we didn’t perceive this as a deliberate attempt to announce governmental control over the Internet.”

– Very recently, according to an article in the Times from 30 April 2005, a representative from Russia’s security service, the FSB, has demanded tighter control of the internet in a meeting with the Upper House of parliament. According to Mr. Frolov new regulations were necessary to stop the spread of extremist ideas. He also said the FSB should get access to telephone companies’ databases and information on sites accessed by their subscribers, besides introducing obligatory registration for all mobile phone users.

“True, he said this. And this also became a scandal in the media. In 2004 there were at least two more such scandals connected with an article of Moscow major Yuri Luzhkov and an interview with senator Ludmila Narusova. Both said that Internet contains dangerous material and the government must consider some regulation.”

– But at the same time, on 12 April 2005 the Russian Minister of Information Technologies and Communications, Leonid Reiman, announced a comprehensive new government program during an economic forum in London, to make Russia a leading player in the global IT market. The so-called e-Russia initiative is aimed to provide equal access to information to all Russian citizens, enhance government transparency, eliminate the digital divide, and create a vibrant civil society in Russia. How do you explain these contradictory developments?

“There are no Internet-specific laws in Russia, and much has to be done to bring the existing laws in compliance with the phenomenon of the Internet. The legislative process remains far behind the development of IT. Russia lacks some important regulations. For example there’s still no law on privacy and/or personal data. Russia has signed but not ratified the CoE Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (ETS No. 108).”

“Thus, some politicians and spokesmen of governmental structures express their own view of the Internet as an environment threatening Russian society. Sometimes their plans and suggestions don’t meet our conception of Russia as democratic country where human rights are secured and respected. But I don’t see a clear repressive policy of the government. On the other hand, due to the ‘legal nihilism’ of many Russian people, the absence of essential legislation and the weakness of civil institutions there are chances that some restrictive initiatives may be implemented. In this climate, the Human Rights Network has an important role to disseminate information about the value of digital rights. For example, we developed a website on privacy, a comprehensive source of information on the topic, from the basic concept to software for personal privacy protection.”

– Supposedly, all Russian internet providers must provide a direct uplink to the Russian secret services, for monitoring. Is that true?

“The system is called SORM-2. ISPs don’t speak frequently about their connections to secret services but we can say that these connections exist.”

– In January 2004 you wrote a report for EDRI-gram about a proposal to create a new ID system in Russia, that would give all Russians a unique universal identifier by 2006. You also wrote the plan raised a lot of concern amongst human rights experts. What is the current situation?

“The government has made no new announcements about this system in public. Most of our concerns are connected with the lack of legislation – the law on personal data and the institution (privacy commissioner) that should monitor the implementation of this data.”

– During the workshop about access to information at the UNESCO conference in St Petersburg, many Russian scientists complained about the fact that it was so extremely difficult to obtain knowledge about the law. A bill intended to create more transparency about policy and legislation has been underway for 3 years but many MPs have different versions and it is almost impossible to obtain the official draft version. How hard is it for you to obtain policy information?

“In the previous Duma we had some reliable channels of information. Thus, the Russian human rights community was able not only to get drafts but also analyse them and sometimes arrange for interviews. My colleagues have issued periodic reviews of the legislation process. After the last parliamentary elections the number of liberal MPs dramatically decreased and it became more difficult to get information about processes within the Parliament.”

– How do you feel about the future?

“If you are a human rights activist who lives and works in Russia you can’t be confident that you can build a strong civil society anytime soon. This is not because of some specific Russian mentality but due to circumstances like the Putin presidency. You can hope and you can make plans, more or less realistic, and work to get closer to your aim and to help people. Do what you must do and let come what may.”

Human Rights Online

Privacy website Human Rights Online

EPIC and Privacy International, Privacy and Human Rights report 2004: Privacy in the Russian Federation (16.11.2004)[347]=x-347-83789

Human Rights Network, Privacy in the Russian Internet (in English, 2003)

Human Rights Network, Privacy in the Russian Internet (in Russian, 2005)