Russia Bans Some Internet Memes That Mock Public Figures
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: Today, effect of daily life on the Internet - not just checking sports scores or keeping up with the news, but discovering ridiculous memes - constructed images that go viral. In fact, this past weekend was buzzing with images of Hillary Clinton blended with Rosie the Riveter, depicted as the queen of England and shown as Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball. In the U.S., celebrities are fair game for this kind of mockery, but not so in Russia these days. Censors there have said that it is illegal to use celebrity photos in a meme when the image has nothing to do with the celebrity's personality. And, of course, memes have already popped up, mocking that policy. With us to explain it all is Kevin Rothrock, who wrote about the recent ruling for Global Voices and Quartz magazine. Welcome.
KEVIN ROTHROCK: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: First, tell us about the Russian case that prompted this policy.
ROTHROCK: So there is this Russian musician who's well-known as this kind of crooner. He's popular among women, and he appealed to the federal censor and asked them to take to court this website that posted this meme - basically it's a very sexist obscene meme. It's anti-women, we can say, and because, essentially, his reputation as a musician is of a man who's beloved by women, who loves women and is essentially just sort of a kind guy who sings these sort of silly, silly songs.
SIEGEL: He went to court to stop this.
ROTHROCK: It's a very strange case because he's not actually the plaintiff. He's the third party in the case, and actually, the defendant is not the website. It is the top level domain of Tonga (ph), which is where the website is registered. So even the website is not actually technically the defendant in this case. This is just sort of a snapshot of really how the Russian legal system works.
SIEGEL: And the upshot of this is an announcement of not a new law actually, but an announcement of a policy that bans certain kinds of, you would say, memes.
ROTHROCK: That's right. I mean, in effect it really bans all memes using celebrities. Insofar as the language of this announcement, which was posted on VKontakte (ph) - which is the Russian equivalent of Facebook - they said that any images that use famous people's identities, or images, they're against the law if they take that image out of context of that person's reputation. And so that would, in theory, ban really any meme, I think, that uses a celebrity. It's very strange.
SIEGEL: But it's very easy to find on the web pictures of a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding - and then take your pick - a cow, a shark. My favorite - he's riding a cracker, and it's called Putin on the Ritz. All of that, in theory, would be illegal.
ROTHROCK: Well, right now in practice and in theory, the only thing that is illegal is the single meme that affects this one musician. But given Russia's track record for taking laws, taking court decisions, out of context or applying them more broadly than it was initially intended, I think it's fair to speculate that politicians could eventually become affected by this, or memes about politicians could become fair game, I think.
SIEGEL: Is this an enforceable policy, given the technology and the global nature of the web?
ROTHROCK: Just like I would say the vast majority of Russian laws against anything on the Internet, this law - or this decision is totally unenforceable. The entire point is not to purge the Internet of bad things. It's to make people online afraid of getting in trouble.
SIEGEL: I believe almost instantly there were new memes popping up the Russians could see online after this - after this policy was announced.
ROTHROCK: There were, and, in fact, the other thing is that the meme that's at the center of this story is actually six or seven years old. And so some of the speculation about this particular case is that the musician who brought the suit through the censor is in fact just sort of seeking publicity for his new album. He has a new album out.
SIEGEL: The plot thickens.
ROTHROCK: That's right, yeah.
SIEGEL: Kevin Rothrock, thanks for talking with us.
ROTHROCK: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Kevin Rothrock wrote about the recent Russian government ruling on memes for Global Voices and Quartz magazine.
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