Russians may end up with a web vetted by The League for Internet Safety

Russia's Internet is facing official efforts to rein it in. Users are in an uproar over suggestions they should soon be sent only to a list of approved websites proposed by The League for Internet Safety.

By , Correspondent

Russia's vast and freewheeling Internet, known as Ru.net, is facing stepped up official and semi-official efforts to rein it in.

But experts point to a couple of recent clashes in cyberspace to argue that it's not going to be easy to shut down one of the world's most diverse and raucous free-speech zones.

Many Russian bloggers say they're reluctantly willing to live with the Russian government's often ham-handed attempts to "blacklist" sites deemed to be socially dangerous, such as child pornography, under a law passed by the State Duma last year.

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But they're in an uproar over suggestions that Russian Internet users should be transferred to a "whitelist" of approved websites proposed by The League for Internet Safety, a new organization that's sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose directors include an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, and which counts several of Russia's leading telecommunications firms among its members.

"I certainly support the idea of a safer Internet, but this plan being advanced by the League of a 'whitelist,' which would create a Ru.net composed only of websites that have been vetted and approved, is really hard to like," says Alexei Lukatsky, an Internet expert and consultant to CISCO in Russia.

"For one thing, it's really hard to realize such a scheme in practice. For another, isn't it against the Constitution? Citizens have a right to information, and it's hard to see how one organization could be allowed to set itself up as judge, jury, and executioner on the web," he says.

Early this month the League announced it would soon launch an experiment in the central Russian region of Kostroma, which it said has been approved by the governor and 29 local Internet service providers, to provide a sanitized Internet service to everyone.

The group said it has 20,000 volunteers currently sifting through Ru.net's estimated 4 million websites, and that it had already certified 400,000 of them as completely safe. According to press reports of the original proposal, any Kostroma Internet user who wanted to surf beyond the confines of the whitelist would be required to apply in writing.

Outrage across the blogosphere

But after the blogosphere erupted in outrage, League organizers backtracked and said they were still working on the project but now are planning to introduce it as a system of "parental guidance" that would be optional for everyone.

"Our view is that the Internet has to be made safe, and this will be possible only if all the Internet communities join together, work out the mechanisms and unite our actions," says Valery Ponomaryov, assistant to the League's director, Denis Davydov.

The League has set off alarm bells because, although it's registered as a nongovernmental organization, it is clearly no ordinary civil society group. It was founded by a wing of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its board of directors includes former Communications Minister and current Kremlin adviser Igor Shchyogolev. All three of Russia's mobile phone providers are members, and its largest minority shareholder is the giant state-owned telecom firm Rostelecom.

Mr. Ponomaryov says that an average Internet user would "hardly notice any difference at all" if the filtering system they are proposing were enacted.

"But [since the experiment in Kostroma was announced] the mass media has failed to understand our idea...  Lots of emotions have been stirred up in the blogosphere, but hardly any rational information at all. However, we're happy that a discussion has been started," he says.

A battle ground

Russia's Internet has become a battleground since the Internet law came into effect last November. About 230 websites have been blocked, including 90 so far this year, most of them for truly offensive content that even a civil libertarian might have trouble defending.

But on several occasions officials have taken down an entire platform over one objectionable item, forcing website organizers to go to court, and spend weeks of effort, to get reinstated.

That happened again this week, when Roskomnadzor shut down an entire portal, lj.rossia.org, which plays host to hundreds of popular blogs, ostensibly because of two pages of objectionable content.

The site's administrator, Mikhail Verbitsky, a math professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says it was originally set up to provide a free-speech alternative to Russia's biggest social media platform, LiveJournal.  The site, he says, began imposing many politically-restrictive rules on bloggers, in earnest after the new Internet law was passed.

"Essentially, we wanted to create a space where what Americans would call First Amendment rights would be completely respected," says Mr. Verbitsky.

"Ours is a text-only platform, without pictures, so we didn't think child pornography would be a problem. But our entire site has been closed down now over just these two pages, which do in fact contain unpleasant – not illegal, but very unpleasant – material involving children….  So, I will remove these two pages, and write to the government with an appeal that our site be restored. We are going to have to accept that when the government tells us to block something, we will probably have to block it," he adds.

Little to fear

Some experts say that Russian bloggers probably have little to fear from Roskomnadzor and the League for Internet Safety, if only because it's almost impossible to effectively censor the Internet without killing it.

"So far, filtering is all about fighting the result," says Andrei Kolesnikov, a leading Russian Internet expert.

"But the Internet is vast, has almost unlimited means to replicate material, and any number of ways to go around obstacles. Everything is basically three clicks away.…  With certain types of content, such as child porn and criminal material, the only reliable way to shut them down is to find the source, physically, and deal with it," he says.

"And if you want to block content for political reasons – if this is, indeed, what Russian authorities want to do – you pretty much have to create your own Internet and switch off the uplink to the rest of the world. And then you're North Korea." 

Recommended: Sochi, Soviets, and tsars: How much do you know about Russia?
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