In post-Soviet Russia, you don’t make memes. Memes make (or unmake?) you.
That is, at least, the only conclusion we can draw from an announcement made this week by Russia’s three-year-old media agency/Internet censor Roskomnadzor, which made it illegal to publish any Internet meme that depicts a public figure in a way that has nothing to do with his “personality.”
Sad Keanu? Nope.
Sad Putin? Absolutely not.
“These ways of using [celebrities’ images] violate the laws governing personal data and harm the honor, dignity and business of public figures,” reads the policy announcement from Roskomnadzor.
To be clear, this isn’t a new law passed by parliament or anything — it’s just a (pretty startling) clarification of existing policy, published to the popular social network Vkontakte. According to Russian media, the announcement came in light of a lawsuit filed by the Russian singer Valeri Syutkin, who sued an irreverent Wikipedia-style culture site over an image macro that paired his picture with some less-than-tasteful lyrics from another artist’s song. On Tuesday, a Moscow judge ruled for Syutkin, prompting the Roskomnadzor to publish an update to its “personal data laws.”
Those laws now ban, per Roskomnadzor’s announcement, memes that picture public figures in a way that “has no relation to [their] personality,” parody accounts and parody Web sites. If a public figure believes such a site or meme has been made about him, the announcement continues, he can report them to the Roskomnadzor, which — in addition to overseeing Russia’s Internet censorship program — can file claims in court. Web sites are essentially given the choice of blocking the offending content in Russia, or seeing their whole sites get blocked across the country.
If that sounds crazy to U.S. readers, it probably should: U.S. law gives a very, very wide berth to Internet speech, even when it depicts private people or children — and especially when it depicts public figures.
Russia, on the other hand, has taken a series of steps to increase government control of the Internet in recent months. Just last August, Russia enacted a law that forced all bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers to register with the Roskomnadzor, basically outlawing anonymous blogs. Earlier in the year, Russia approved a law that lets Roskomnadzor unilaterally block Web sites without explanation; the sites of prominent Putin critics were among the first to go dark.
It is impossible to know, of course, exactly how much of the Russian Internet will be affected by the change and to what degree this new policy will be pursued or enforced. (It is worth noting that public figures have to take their complaints to the Roskomnadzor, which many presumably will not do.)
Still, if the policy is enforced, the implications for the Russian memeosphere could be huge: According to a recent academic census of English-speaking memes, nearly a third of the Internet’s most popular memes depict a specific person. Just think of how many excellent memes depict Vladimir Putin!
(Zofia Smardz kindly translated all the Russian referenced in this post.)
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