Russia Blacklists Last Arena of Free Speech

// CGCS presents an in depth look at recent attempts by Russian lawmakers to blacklist potentially questionable content online. Dr. Kevin M. F. Platt, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Chair for the Program in Comparative Literature and Literature Theory at the University of Pennsylvania explains the implications of and reactions to this new media law. For more background on this topic, see our Media Law Round Up from 11/16.

In response to web-powered political unrest, Russian lawmakers have moved to impose new censorship mechanisms in the past months on the only significant arena of free speech remaining in Russia: the Internet. Russian and international commentators are of two minds about these efforts, seeing them either as so ham-fisted as to be utterly ineffectual, or as the beginnings of a new reign of totalitarian control. Neither of these conceptions correspond to the reality of contemporary Russian politics and society, however, where bureaucratic inefficiency is a crucial element in a strategy of social control through a combination of intimidation and targeted intervention.

One year ago, on December 10, 2011, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg and (to a lesser degree) other major cities in order to protest parliamentary elections that had been crudely and obviously rigged in favor of the ruling party United Russia. The main organizational platform for that first mass protest was a single Facebook page. Throughout the ensuing months, leading up to the election of Vladimir Putin for a new term as Russian president on March 4, 2012, social media sites served as the infrastructure enabling repeated demonstrations that reached as many as 100,000 participants.

Among the opposi­tion leaders to emerge in that chaotic moment, perhaps the most charismatic was Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger. Yet all opposition figures maintained contact with their supporters by means of the web—through personal sites, web-enabled television, Internet radio and text journalism, and social media. For the Russian powers that be, accustomed to controlling public life through their dominance of mass communications, the Internet had clearly emerged as a major new challenge.

Blacklisted Categories

Not surprisingly, since Putin’s reelection, Russian lawmakers have devoted themselves to meeting this challenge. The first fruits of their efforts have been the June 28 revision to the law “On the Protection of Children Against Information Harmful to their Health and Development” (Russian Federal Law 139-ФЗ) that entered into force on November 1, 2012. According to this legislation, the Russian Bureau for Oversight of Mass Media and Communica­tions, Roskomnadzor, is entrusted with maintaining a blacklist of websites containing harmful information, as ascertained by the bureau’s own experts on the basis of citizen complaints and communications from the federal security organs and courts.

The legislation lists several categories of information subject to blacklisting: child pornography, information relating to illegal drug use, material relating to suicide, and (the crux of the matter), “any other information” prohibited by a court order. Once identified, sites containing banned content must remove the offending material within twenty-four hours. Otherwise, Internet service providers are required to block access to these sites.

By all appearances, the new blacklist will be followed by other initiatives. Russian lawmakers are currently considering  projects to limit anony­mity on Internet social media by calling for passport registration of online identities. Some lawmakers have called for an expansion of the definition of “mass media” to include blogs and social media sites, allowing existing obscenity and programming regulation to apply to nearly any Internet speech.

Impact of the law potentially further reaching than expected

To be sure, Russian officials are wary of the possible negative economic impacts of over-regulation of the Internet—see, for instance, an interview with Aleksandr Zharov, the head of Roskomnadzor (in Russian). Yet given that polls consistently show that Russians support “censorship” on the Internet, it seems more than likely that populist appeals such as that of Ruslan Gattarov, member of the Committee on Information Policy of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) to “do something about the dirt” in the Internet will lead to more stringent measures.

Within Russia and outside of it, opinions vary concerning the actual impact of these efforts to regulate the Internet. Perhaps the majority of commen­tary from outside of Russia has raised the specter of a regime of overweening state oversight, threatening free speech. As Andrei Soltatov and Irina Borogan point out, in a report sponsored by writing Agentura.Ru, CitizenLab and Privacy International and published in Wired Online, Roskomnadzor has already determined that the new law can only be fully implemented by mandating the introduction of deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows monitoring of the contents of all Internet traffic. In their view, the legislation will lead to the creation of a nearly total surveillance system.

Similar views of the implications of the new legislation were voiced in many major western news outlets—Economist, The Guardian, etc. Within Russia, raising similar concerns, opposition groups have organized protests outside the Ministry of Communications. The blogosphere is abuzz with critique of the new law as instituting a heavy-handed new regime of censorship.

Criticism Resonating Internationally

In contrast, however, other commentators have focused attention more on the bureaucratic and technical incompetence with which the new law has been implemented, that has resulted, for instance, in short-lived and seemingly unintended blocks of Google and YouTube that evoked ridicule across the Russian web. Poorly thought out methods of blocking sites by IP, rather than by domain name, have allowed some sites to quickly circumvent the mechanism of the blacklist by switching IP.

A number of sites have been blacklisted in error, as a result of incompetent analysis of their content. Iurii Revich, writing in opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (The New Gazette), pronounced that “social commentary concerning various aspects of the new law and its implementation have concluded that more and more new rules and restrictions will have to be implemented… or else the new law simply will not work.”

American blogger Andrey Tselikov, in a post on Global Voices, catalogs blunder after blunder in the first month of the law’s implementation, with special attention to the blacklisting of Lurkmore, an on-line Russian satirical encyclopedia, concluding by casting doubt on the seriousness of the threat to Internet freedoms, given the incompetence of Roskomnadzor: “Maybe one day, Russians will once again be free to read humorous encyclopedia entries on marijuana. Until they can, declarations about a ‘murdered RuNet’ are likely to continue, whether or not they’re really warranted.”

Russian Blacklisting fitting for a Russian Netizenry

While both of these views of the implications of the new law have some merit, neither fully grasps the realities of Russian administrative and bureaucratic systems of policing and control. The mechanisms set in place by the new law, especially if they indeed include the adop­tion of DPI technology, could in theory bring into being an Orwellian scenario of total surveillance and control of Internet traffic. Yet it is unlikely that the Russian powers that be have any interest in such a project, given their stated investment in technological modernization and innovation that would undoubtedly suffer in any such scenario.

Rather than aiming at “total control,” the law is designed to make new instruments for targeted inter­ventions into Internet communications available to state security agencies and to Russia’s corrupt judicial system. With the flick of a judge’s pen, instigated by a telephone call from on high, the Kremlin may now shut down an opposition blogger’s site,  a social media page dedicated to the organization of “unsanctioned demonstrations,” or a news report expressing “extremist views” for weeks or months at a time.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, such interventions will be aided precisely by the clumsy administrative culture of Russian state bureaucracies, in which ‘regrettable’ mistakes are made, appeals are misdirected or lost, and reversals and reinstatements can encounter ‘unforeseen delays.’ In the implementation of the new Internet blacklist, as in today’s Russia more generally, it is the combination of expanded state powers and bureaucratic bumbling that will open the door to arbitrary and willful abuses.

[show_hide title=”Click for further reading, commentary and Op/Eds“]

9/19 New Tension Over Russian Media Law (background, via Wall Street Journal: Europe)

11/14 Russia’s Controversial Internet Law Causing Collateral Damage (via Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

11/14 Russia Treason Law Takes Effect (via Global Post)

11/14 Lurkmore or Lurkless? The Russian Internet Blacklist In Action (via Global Voices Online)

11/15 Where did 180 Russian Websites go? (via Christian Science Monitor)


Featured Image Credit:Attribution Some rights reserved by Rd. Vortex

Kevin M. F. Platt is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Graduate Chair of the Comparative Literature Program at The University of Pennsylvania. He works on representations of Russian history, Russian historiography, history and memory in Russia, Russian lyric poetry, and global post-Soviet Russian culture. His most recent book is Terror and Greatness: Ivan and Peter as Russian Myths (Cornell UP, 2011).

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