The invention of the Internet offered an opportunity to access an unprecedented corpus of information, alongside with the benefits of electronic communication, to millions of users. The so-called Web 2.0 then marked a shift towards mass participation in content creation and social networking, fostering novel means of knowledge exchange (Kilburn and Earley, 2015). On-line communication in a broad sense can be characterised by the following three traits:
- a rich variety of content is made immediately available to everyone who can afford the relatively minimal cost of access,
- individuals can communicate their views, ideas and thoughts to others,
- individuals have equal opportunities for communication (Spano, 2016).
The ability to comment on web-based content and to impart information on the Internet constitutes a novel and democratic medium (Weber, 2014). It can be further argued that the online domain becomes one of the important means of coordinating civil society action in times of political unrest (Wolfsfeld, Segev and Sheafer, 2013). Naturally, in 47 Council of Europe Member States freedom of expression online falls within the ambit of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
At the same time, the State authorities do not take on the role of passive observers: the regulation of the online domain is gradually being tightened; the legislation is enacted in respect of filtering, blocking and takedown of content on the Internet. The grounds for blocking online content are numerous and include:
- the protection of national security, territorial integrity or public safety (e.g., terrorism),
- the prevention of disorder or crime (e.g.,child pornography),
- the protection of health or morals,
- the protection of the reputation or rights of others (e.g., defamation, invasion of privacy, intellectual property rights),
- preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence (Council of Europe, 2016).
In Brussels and Strasbourg the eyes are now directed towards the situation in Turkey and Russia, the two countries which have already provided ample opportunities for the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to adjudicate on the freedom of expression on the Internet issues. Both countries have been in turmoil over the last two decades. Turkey is constantly facing challenges with its religious minorities (European Parliament, 2008) and currently finds itself in an aftermath of an unsuccessful coup d’État that took place in July 2016. The Russian Federation has always had a peculiar political and business regime, stemming from its post-Soviet legacy (Ledeneva, 2006) and resulting in difficulties with the functioning of civil society institutions (Henderson, 2011). The country is also impacted by volatile oil and gas prices (Henderson and Mitrova, 2015) and, more recently, by economic sanctions imposed by the EU and US following the annexation of Crimea and further activities in Eastern Ukraine (Oxenstierna and Olsson, 2015). These circumstances may be seen as being conducive to the State authorities in both Turkey and Russia to constantly “test the limits” of what is possible in online regulation to make sure that the criticism of the regime does not become too vocal online.
In general, the ECtHR’s case law testifies to the fact that it has become more articulate and emphatic in its application of Article 10 of the European Convention to online domain (European Court of Human Rights, 2016). A number of recent cases before the ECtHR document the attempts of Turkish authorities to limit access to the Internet. For example, the ECtHR’s primary case-law on “blanket-blocking” of social media and other websites, including such giants as YouTube and Google Sites service, is based on a number of applications lodged by Turkish nationals. In this regard, cases such as Ahmet Yildirim v. Turkey (2012), Akdeniz v. Turkey (dec) (2014) and Cengiz and Others v. Turkey (2015) are worth mentioning. Similarly, a case lodged in 2014 against Russia by one of the opposition leaders, Alexey Navalnyy, deals with the restriction to use the Internet and has been communicated to the Russian government for observations; the judgment is pending.
Furthermore, both Turkey and Russia have put in place the legislation which allows removal and/or blocking of web sites without prior court decisions (see, in case of Russia, Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information with further amendments and, in case of Turkey, Law on Regulating Broadcasting in the Internet and Fighting Against Crimes Committed through Internet Broadcasting). In both countries administrative bodies, such as the Presidency of Telecommunication (“TIB”) in Turkey and the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (“Roskomnadzor”) in Russia, have an authority to implement blocking measures.
The recent developments in both countries leave no room for doubt that the ECtHR will face an influx of applications that allege Article 10 violations stemming from the regulatory activities and administrative practices. In particular, reports from Turkey indicate incidents of website blocks and detentions of online news editors (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2016; Global Voices, 2016) after the attempted coup. At the same time, a number of recent court decisions from Russia outline a trend of imposing harsh fines and prison sentences on Internet users for (re-)posting on-line content on their social media accounts:
- prison sentence for reposting a picture mocking the Orthodox church (Moskovskoye Byuro Po Pravam Cheloveka, 2016);
- €2 700 fine for reposting an article concerning the alleged involvement of the USSR in triggering the Second World War (Deutsche Welle, 2016);
- prison sentence for reposting an article titled “Crimea is Ukraine” (BBC, 2016).
What is more, a very recent Russian Federal Law No. 374 of 6 July colloquially known as the “Yarovaya law” makes it a crime to not warn the authorities of “reliable” information about planned terrorist attacks, armed uprisings and other crimes. Expressing approval of terrorism on the Internet will now be punishable with up to 7 years in prison, while encouraging people to take part in “mass disturbances” may result in a 5- to 10-year prison sentence.
To conclude, it is plausible to assume that the ECtHR would have a lot on its plate in the near future while assessing the situation with freedom of expression on the Internet as well as related legislative and administrative practices in Turkey and Russia.