Russia has banned the online forum Reddit, ostensibly over a single thread on how to grow psychedelic mushrooms, in what some fear may be the first in a wave of such closures.
The official communications watchdog Roskomnadzor warned on its VKontake page Monday that the often controversial web service needed to remove the offending thread (or "subreddit") to avoid being placed on Russia's growing blacklist of extremist websites. Listed sites are required to be blocked by Russian servers.
Roskomnadzor, which is responsible to supervise virtually all electronic communications in Russia and ensure compliance with increasingly tough legislation passed by Russia's State Duma, said it had tried to contact managers at San Francisco-based Reddit, to no avail.
"We assume that the website is somewhat relaxed during the August holidays, but that's no reason to risk losing its audience" in Russia, the notice said.
Russia's Internet has more than 80 million users, and remains the most open and freewheeling vehicle of expression in the country. But fears are growing that new laws, especially one set to come into effect next month requiring all global Internet services to store Russian user data on in-country servers, will curtail it.
If Reddit, one of the world's most popular news sites, disappears from Russian cyberspace, other US-based services like Facebook, Google+, and Twitter may not be far behind.
Ironically, the Russian move comes just as Reddit yielded to ongoing criticism of its numerous user-created racist and anti-Semitic subreddits. Though the company had long defended hosting of any content, however offensive, as protection of free speech, its newly appointed CEO announced last week that the site was tightening its content policy to forbid the offending material completely. He also announced that Reddit was banning several notorious subreddits.
The subreddit about psychedelic mushrooms that attracted the ire of Russian authorities, however, was not affected by the company's policy change. And because Reddit uses the secure "https" protocol for its hosting, most local Russian servers will be required to take down the entire platform instead of the offending subreddit. There was discussion among Russian Reddit users Thursday about whether the ban had fully come into effect, and how it might be evaded.
Roskomnadzor's registry of banned websites now runs to over 10,000 items, including many that few would defend, such as child pornography, jihadist-leaning platforms, and narcotics manuals. But some of the proscribed sites include religious ones such as that of the Jehovah's Witnesses, those of Kremlin critics such as anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, and research tools like the Wayback Machine, which archives deleted data.