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.