The Russian regions that are banning "gay propaganda"

This legislation essentially prohibits the public discussion of homosexuality. The British press is

This legislation essentially prohibits the public discussion of homosexuality. The British press is depressingly silent.

By the week's end, the St. Petersburg Assembly hope to make it illegal for any person to write a book, publish an article or speak in public about being gay, lesbian or transgender. Campaigners are currently attempting to prevent such a move. It's too late for Arkhangelsk and Ryazan, those regions already having criminalised what is termed "gay propaganda".

It would be easy to be unaware any of this was happening -- considering the complete lack of coverage it has gained from mainstream British media. The Bill is now said to be stalling -- though as a result of "technical difficulties" in applying the law, rather than foreign pressure. When referring to a law that seeks to bind the mouths of minorities, there's a bleak irony in our own press falling silent -- particularly since they are doing so willingly. This is not Russia, where the murders of outspoken journalists go unsolved and independent media outlets are shut down. The British press has the freedom to report this news but simply chooses not to. As his ruling party sought to continue on its path to wipe out "unapproved" voices, the story that filled the news was Putin being jeered at a sporting event. Nothing else appeared to matter, the Russian-reporting quota filled by the image of the PM posturing his way into a martial arts ring.

Slowly but surely -- and without much notice -- regions of Russia are hoping to pull off their most brazen attempt yet, taking a national crisis in freedom of speech and aiming to fully silence a specific group. What they are seeking to criminalise is not even active dissent, but simply a divergence from the "norm" that the authorities are desperate to protect.

It's apparent with the quickest glance at what is being proposed. The exact wording of the law prohibits the so-called propaganda of "sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism and transgenderism, and pedophilia to minors." In comparing consensual adult acts to child abuse, it is in fact the Regional Assemblies that are attempting propaganda, exacerbating the general public's fear of "homosexual perversion".

It was only in 1993 that homosexuality was de-criminalised in Russia. Eighteen years isn't much time to overcome a culturally engrained history of arrest and torture. The first gay pride parade in Moscow was banned and same-sex relationships were deemed "satanic" by its Major. Gay rights activists are making huge strides, though, and it cannot be underestimated how detrimental laws like this are to the fight for progress.

The proposal waiting to be passed in St. Petersburg contradicts every law, convention and decree Russia has signed up to -- from their own Federal Law to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also contradicts basic logic, demanding (as it does in practice) the ability to exclude under-18s from events running in open public places. This is, of course, all part of the tactic: the authorities are making it impossible for anyone to promote ideas of tolerance to any sort of audience.

If they can't come for you for the relationship you're in, they come for you for the words that you write and the things that you say. As another Russian region votes on whether to bring out the gag, the British press should look at the silence falling from their own lips.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham. She blogs at Different Principles and tweets@frances_ryan

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.