December 14, 2023

A QR Crackdown


A QR Crackdown
The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny being detained on Tverskaya street in Moscow, 2017. Evgeny Feldman, Wikimedia Commons.

The Moscow Department of Media and Advertising has banned the placement of QR codes on billboards in what appears to be a direct response to recent protest actions by associates of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

On December 6, in prominent locations across the city, Navalny's allies hung banners that featured QR codes redirecting those who scanned them to the website "Russia without Putin."

"I ask all advertisers to exclude the use of QR codes. The placement of a QR code that works as a link to an internet resource containing different and changeable content may contain information that violates the 'On Advertising' law, especially taking into account the increase in hacker attacks and hacking of information systems and sites," wrote Ivan Shubin, head of the Moscow Department of Media and Advertising.

The move is the latest in an escalating campaign to suppress dissent. Navalny's associates have embraced new technologies like QR codes to spread their message without triggering criminal charges for unsanctioned gatherings. Some see it as an innovative means to speak the truth in an increasingly repressive regime. For authorities, that creativity itself is now the target of new laws. With this prohibition on protest billboards, the already narrow space for political speech has become even tighter.

According to Sirena, Vyacheslav Gimadi, a lawyer with Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), noted that Moscow authorities do not have the legal right to prohibit QR codes on billboards. At most, city officials can issue non-binding recommendations against placing QR codes, rather than enacting an outright ban. So, while authorities are attempting to discourage the use of this tactic, their threats may have more bark than bite.

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