Internet vs Roskomnadzor

posted 22 Apr 2014, 13:39 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 Apr 2014, 13:56 ]
15 April 2014

Source: (info)
Vladimir Abarinov and Polina Kolozaridi on what the new wave of censorship means and whether the state will take control over the Internet.

As of 13 March, Roskomnadzor [the Russian Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and the Mass Media] will block users’ access to three major opposition sites and Aleksei Navalny’s blog in response to a request from Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office.

This move comes in application of "Lugovoi’s Law”, which came into force on 1 February and which allows sites to be included without warning on the list of prohibited media outlets.

Polina Kolozaridi, postgraduate student and researcher at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” and the commentator and historian Vladimir Abarinov held an on-air discussion on Radio Svodoba about what this new wave of censorship will mean and whether the Internet will be placed under state control.

– The sites, Ezhednevny zhurnal and have now been blocked in the Russian Federation for a whole month. This is a new phase in the crackdown on freedom of speech. Previously Roskomnadzor asked the editors of these sites to remove particular articles or images which the authorities thought violated the legislation in force. Now the sites have been blocked entirely, without any concrete explanation being provided. What is going on?

– The latest site-blocking measures are in some ways reminiscent of the old style of censorship, but there have also been some changes. I can remember when the authorities blocked the reasonably large online encyclopaedia Lurkmore back in 2012, for example, because it contained an article which Roskomnadzor believed “promoted drug dependency".

Roskomnadzor did not issue any warnings at all. Back then, however, the technical means of blocking sites were less advanced, and so the site returned after merely changing its IP address. Roskomnadzor eased off the pressure and this remarkable encyclopaedia still exists to this day.

Yet now both the approach and the language used have changed. The first point that should be made is that previously sites were not openly blocked for political reasons. Individual accounts and individual bloggers were blocked on grounds of “extremism”, but never entire sites and their editors.

This may be related to the policy of “imploding” media outlets, which is becoming so prevalent in Russia that it is hard to ignore.

The second point is that people can still access online media outlets, and fortunately this access is unrestricted – no one can be stopped from using proxy servers, although of course you have to know how.

– believes that its site has been blocked unlawfully, and it intends to lodge a court appeal against Roskomnadzor’s decision. It has told its readers that they will not be breaking the law by using various work-arounds to access the site, but acting in protest against a violation of the law. Were there not attempts to criminalise these very work-arounds?

– Yes, unfortunately there has already been an attempt to ban the technologies which make it possible to circumvent similar bans, initiated in August last year by one of the activists from “Fight against paedophilia”. It has not yet been successful, even though it generated a great deal of attention and many bloggers wrote and talked about it at the time.

The proposal was not taken any further because those who impose bans will always be on the losing side in this game. Today they might ban Tor for example (a system for anonymous network connections to avoid censorship – ed.), but tomorrow there will be other systems.

– What does it mean in technical terms if a site is blocked?

– In technical terms, it means that a provider will refuse to establish a connection to a server where a site is located because the site in question is included on the list of banned sites.

– We’re faced with a paradox. No one is stopping the editors of these sites from working on them or adding new content. If is breaking the law, for example, why don’t the authorities go to its offices and take away its computers?

– Even if the employees of Roskomnadzor or any other organisation went to’s offices and took away all of its computers, the most likely outcome would be that the site would stay live, since the relevant data are not stored in any offices.

I think it's highly likely that, in common with many other media outlets which are aware that the authorities may somehow or other take an interest in them, keeps its data on servers located far beyond Russia’s borders. They may well also have "mirrors" in other countries, and so the site has no real physical location.

– I don’t remember the time when typewriters had to be registered with the police, but I do remember when photocopiers used to be under strict control: they would be kept behind an iron door with a small window, and you needed a permit from a high-ranking official to use them in order to prevent illicit copying, in particular of foreign press articles. How far might today’s authorities go in their attempts to control free thinkers? It is theoretically possible that accounts may initially be blocked for disseminating the content of prohibited sites, and then simply for visiting such sites.

– The state is not yet able to target individual users. The most effective method at present is to ban providers from connecting to certain sites and to issue them with blacklists and whitelists.

In various regions of Russia there have been initiatives to give providers whitelists, i.e. a list of 20 sites which are allowed, and to ban the rest of the Internet, instead of using blacklists of sites which cannot be visited.

This is similar to the situation in China, but the idea has not yet taken root in Russia, and I believe it is unlikely that it will as our users are accustomed to working with the Internet and have acquired a taste for surfing the web freely. It would be very difficult to limit that, and there are also political differences between the two countries.

As we mentioned earlier, providers have been banned from allowing connections to entire sites and their editorial staff. It is likely that the Russian Internet will become less anonymous, i.e. it will be run according to European rules. There are currently lots of public places in Russia where you can access the Internet free of charge and anonymously; in principle you can go into any café with Wi-Fi and gain access without entering your personal details.

The same is true for the Internet as a whole in Russia, since often there is just one IP address for an entire block of flats, and there is no requirement for an individual to register on this network. It’s entirely possible that this era will gradually come to an end, and we will soon lose our anonymity on the Internet because Internet protocols are becoming more and more targeted at single users.

On the other hand, we are also seeing a move to protect personal information, and so it is equally possible that international agreements will prevent the adoption of any legislation that our lawmakers may think up along these lines. All this remains to be seen in the none-too-close future.

– The Wall Street Journal recently published an article where the decision by Barack Obama’s government to withdraw from its contract with the organisation ICANN, which deals with issues relating to the functioning of the Internet, was referred to as capitulation. In the opinion of the article’s author, the loss of control by the US government will mean that the Internet has no one to defend it, since Washington has to date been responsible for blocking any web-based censorship attempts.

– This is perhaps where the most interesting developments can currently be seen, namely the international debate about the Internet. US involvement in the leadership of ICANN is a particularly complex issue. It’s important to note first of all that Germany and Brazil were among those responsible for proposing that the USA should no longer play such a key role in ICANN’s activities. Back in February this year, following the Snowden affair, Angela Merkel again stated that she was categorically opposed to excessive US involvement and in favour of the development of a European Internet.

– Russia is spearheading the efforts by countries which would like to place controls on the Internet. Along with China and other like-minded countries, it is attempting to legitimise this control under the aegis of the International Telecommunication Union. Will the US really bow to this pressure?

– There is nothing to stop authoritarian countries blocking whatever they want. Let’s take China as an example. ICANN does not prevent it from putting up a firewall and blocking a good half of the Internet. It seems to me that Russia’s influence here is somewhat exaggerated.

It’s possible that this is simply part of the ongoing political debate within the US about whether Obama is making concessions to Russia, but in fact this is not quite the case. The subject of what many countries believe to be the US’s excessive presence has long been a popular one. There is also a second issue, as correctly noted by the Wall Street Journal, namely that no one now wants the UN to take over a significant role in leading ICANN.

It would be bad news for everyone if the UN were to be assigned this role, because the UN is a clumsy and bureaucratic organisation which cannot respond promptly to challenges and which cannot take the rapid decisions often required on the stage of the Internet. It is not yet clear what role could be played by the UN, but it is in any case obvious that it is an unpopular idea on both sides of the Atlantic and is hence unlikely to become reality.
Cartoon by Mikhail Zlatkovsky (c) Radio Svoboda

Source: Radio Svoboda

Translated by Joanne Reynolds