24 April 2013
By Pavel Chikov, chair of Agora Human Rights Association,
and Damir Gainutdinov, legal analyst with Agora Human Rights Association
The attempts by the state to "clean up" the internet have to date provoked nothing but derision. What could change in the coming months? The unified register of domain names, website page indexes and IP addresses which enable the state to identify sites containing information banned in Russia has been in operation for six months. The milestone was marked by this story about the blocking Yandex. If we were to sum up the register’s work so far, the numbers are impressive: according to the latest data from the RosKomSvoboda Project, 314 domain names and pages, and 178 IP addresses have been added to the register. Given that tens and even hundreds of websites can be hosted on a single IP address, the overall scale of the blacklisting amounts to serious state interference in freedom of information in Russia.
The authorities’ key players here are the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecoms, Information Technology and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor), the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) and the Federal Drug Control Service. The first agency manages the register and together they assess the information based on how it conforms to the law's requirements. The procedure for requesting that a site be added to the register has been simplified and streamlined — all you have to do us fill in a short form on www.zapret-info.gov.ru, giving the address of the suspicious page and a pseudonym.
It was this simplicity and ability to make anonymous requests that led to a surge of enquiries which overwhelmed Roskomnadzor at the start of November last year.
After this the agency published almost-daily press releases reporting thousands of newly received and reviewed requests. It is clear that the support of cyber militias has been vital to the blacklisting effort, namely, the League for a Safe Internet, which bills itself as the "largest and most recognised" organisation formed in Russia to fight against illegal content online. The League for a Safe Internet has influential organisations as its member, including big business and law enforcement bodies. Recently we have heard less and less about the League in the context of supervising content on the Runet, and considering the leak prepared by the organisation about the concept of the internet law and the scandals linked to its founder Konstantin Malofeev, we can presume that the League will meet the same fate as other "pro-Kremlin youth movements" now seen as irrelevant by the state.
However, it is far from clear that the "influential organisations" mentioned on the League's website reject methods of aggressive internet censorship. Take Rostelekom as an example (a League member), which regularly blocks popular resources, sometimes explaining it as a technical glitch. Media reports show that recent victims of these "glitches" include YouTube, Odnoklassniki, VKontakte, Blogspot and Gmail.
A diverse range of items end up in the Register of Banned Sites, much like the medieval Index Librorum Prohibitorum — from Lurkmore, "the encyclopedia of modern culture, folklore and subculture, and everything else," to one of the largest torrent trackers, Rutracker.org, as well as individual tweets and pages on social sites. The frequency with which we hear reports about more and more pages being blocked highlights the authorities’ serious intention to filter the entire Runet.
But most examples of blocking which the public hear about elicit nothing but laughter.
As a result of posting the article, "How to correctly commit suicide", Absurdopedia's IP address was added to the register at the start of November 2012, leading to the complete blocking of all resources hosted on Wikia.
A few days later, Lurkmore ended up on the register for two articles on using cannabis. The internet community spent several days debating whether to delete the offending articles, but in the end Lurkmore's administrators gave in and complied with the authorities’ demands.
Rospotrebnadzor classified a YouTube video which gave instructions for getting ready for Halloween as banned information. This instance of blocking became the basis for one of the first court cases — a complaint against the unlawful actions of the Service is currently being heard at Moscow's Arbitration Court.
In March the journalist Sultan Suleimanov reported that Twitter's administrators complied with Roskomnadzor's demands and blocked his joking tweet that “suicide is fun”. Not long after this, LiveJournal blocked access in Russia to a post by Anton Nosik about Suleimanov's tweet.
The fight for a clean Runet culminated in the adding of 19 pages of the Russian Wikipedia to the register, which was reported at the start of April. Wikipedia's response to this move showed Russian society a new level in the struggle for their rights. Wikipedia's unique position helped: the super-popular, non-profit, collectively-managed project has turned out to be largely protected from all forms of censorship. Wikipedia did not protest, complain or even resist – it simply paid no attention to the fuss kicked up by the Russian state and continued life as normal.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales came up with a motto which all conscientious members of the internet community should bear on their shields: “Catering to the demands of weak and cowardly politicians — the kind who fear the spread of knowledge — is not the Wikipedia way.”
The more the Russian authorities tried to show Wikipedia who was boss, the more foolish they looked.
Of course, no one expected the state to be thorough and balanced in their approach to assessing information, but the reality has surpassed all expectations. In the first days of the register's operation, our laughter at their idiotic decisions was more nervous than gleeful, as though saying "We told you they would bring in censorship." When it was learned that the internet giants Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, not to mention VKontakte and LiveJournal, had agreed to work with Roskomnadzor, it revealed that the construction of a Great Firewall of Russia was just around the corner.
However, after six months of activity, Roskomnadzor – with the help of the Federal Drug Control Service and especially the oversight body headed by Gennady Onishchenko - has managed to turn this system, which was meant to be an effective tool for controlling content, into a laughing-stock and place for experiments. The first trap the state rushed to stick its little head in was the aforementioned tweet by Sultan Suleimanov, published on the night of the register's launch and added to the same list within a few days. After this, a "Universal Image Macro for Blocking Any Site in the Territory of the Russian Federation" appeared online, parodying the descriptions of suicide, drug use and child pornography which had been banned, and quicklyending up on the register itself.
The number of idiotic decisions which have been the butt of jokes has meant that interest in the register has begun to wane. Yet another (probably) expensive initiative has fizzled out. Now everyone knows that there is a register where various sites periodically end up for unknown reasons and at the behest of unknown individuals.
It won't pose a problem for users as long as easy-to-use anonymous proxy servers continue to exist.
Conversely, learning that another page has been added to the register has become a good reason to visit it and see what they're writing about. Just like under the Soviets: if they ban it, it's worth reading. The argument made by the law's defenders that it is necessary for the protection of children from harmful information is clearly groundless: for example, after it was reported that a Wikipedia page about cannabis had been added to the register,the number of visitors to the site increased by 130 times.
All of this would mean that the register was nothing more than a joke, if it weren't for the 13,500 websites that are being blocked without any justification, simply because they happened to be on the same IP address as a resource which the experts had found to contain banned content. The website of the publisher Ultrakultura, Comics Factory, Digital Publishing News and even one of the domains owned by Kaspersky Lab are among the websites blocked in this way.
It is curious that a few days' after Vedomosti published an article about the owner of Digital Publishing News taking Roskomnadzor to court, the site's IP address was removed from the register. This isolated incident serves to underscore the importance of the problem: unknown experts are making decisions based on the vague criteria and ambiguously-worded provisions of the law, which leads to blocking access to thousands of scrupulous resources. We’ll point out that the international community views the blocking of IP addresses and domains as an extreme measure, on par with banning newspapers, television or radio broadcasts.
In this situation, the owner of a blocked resource has only one way to defend their rights – lodge a complaint against the actions of Roskomnadzor in adding a whole IP address to the register. The Russian courts have yet to hear a case like this, which means that the coming court cases will be extremely important not only for protecting the rights of owners of specific sites, but for establishing positive judicial practice, and ultimately repealing this clearly untenable law.