Where did 180 Russian websites go?

Scores of websites have been blocked under Russia's restrictive new Internet law that's been in effect for the past two weeks. Is this the beginning of a wider crackdown on free speech?

Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a meeting with small and medium business leaders at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow Nov. 15. More than 180 websites have been blacklisted and blocked under a restrictive new Internet law signed by Putin last July, is this the beginning of a wider crackdown on Russian free speech?

More than 180 websites have been blacklisted and blocked under a restrictive new Internet law signed by President Vladimir Putin last July, which critics warn may be the start of a wider crackdown on free speech in Russian cyberspace.

The blacklist compiled by the Federal Surveillance Service for Mass Media and Communications (Roskomnadzor) is secret, but authorities insist its purpose is to eliminate extreme forms of "offensive" content, such as child pornography, or advocacy of racism, terrorism, drug use and other anti-social behaviors.

The list is constantly changing and expanding (Russian bloggers have posted an alleged copy of it here) and citizens can suggest new entries by logging into an official Roskomnadzor website.

But in its first two weeks of application, the law has produced a few high-profile casualties that critics say point to the fundamental weaknesses of a system that allows authorities to summarily shut down content without any need for a court order or reference to any supervisory body. 

The definitions of "offensive content" are also murky, critics say, and could easily include political conversation that looks "extremist" to a policeman's eyes and other forms of commentary that might be simply misunderstood.

That criticism seems to have already been borne out. This week alone Roskomnadzor has closed down, among others, a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia of satire, which contained an article about how to make hemp (often associated with marijuana) soup; an online library, which included a copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook," a 1970's American-authored manual for radicals; and a popular torrent-tracking website, on which users had apparently exchanged a file called "The Encyclopedia of Suicide."

The agency allowed those websites to reopen after the "offensive content" was pruned. But experts say those examples were hugely popular websites whose closure attracted immediate public attention and a storm of complaints; restoring service may not prove so easy for smaller victims of the law.

"The first several days of operation of this law have confirmed our worst fears," says Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and popular blogger.    

"Roskomnadzor can shut down a site within 24 hours, without appealing to a court. But in order to restore a resource, one has to complain and go to court. Even so, the rules for getting back online are not at all clear ...  As a result, big resources like YouTube, or internet encyclopedias, or social networks are all under threat. They have millions of users, and some of them are inevitably going to post something deemed offensive. That could lead to the closure of the whole portal," which will be disruptive even if it's temporary, he says.

The head of Roskomnadzor, Alexander Zharov, told journalists this week that big Russian social networks are scrambling to cooperate with the agency, rather than face the possibility of being axed.

"The response from national social networking sites has been comprehensive and constructive, we have no problems with them," Mr. Zharov said.

That worries many opposition-minded Russians, who recall that the protest movement, which erupted last December over alleged electoral fraud was largely self-organized by citizens who communicated through social networks like Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte.

"The criteria of this law are too vague, and the way we've seen it applied already gives us no grounds for optimism," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer and member of the Solidarnost opposition group.

"There is no presumption of innocence, since the decision [to censor] can be taken without a court order. And there is no independent supervision over our law enforcement agencies ... It's clear that under these conditions, and with the prohibit-first approach that authorities are taking, mistakes will be commonplace and the field of freedom will narrow further," he says.

In a comprehensive analysis of the new law, security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan warn that Russian authorities are introducing DPI (deep packet inspection) technology, which creates the potential for unprecedented and total surveillance over all Internet activities.

"No Western democracy has yet implemented a dragnet black-box DPI surveillance system due to the crushing effect it would have on free speech and privacy," they quote Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, as saying. "DPI allows the state to peer into everyone’s internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages: We now know that such techniques were deployed in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It can also compromise critical circumvention tools, tools that help citizens evade authoritarian internet controls in countries like Iran and China."

Experts also warn that the vastly expanded powers open new vistas for official coercion and corruption which, this being Russia, are almost certain to become part of daily practice.

"Imagine that some Internet business has a public forum, and somebody posts something 'offensive' there. It will immediately face the threat of closure," unless authorities are properly mollified, says Mr. Kozyrev.

"Basically, this law opens an enormous field for political pressure on one side, and corruption on the other. It combines an attack on freedom of thought with an assault on business. The situation is really alarming," he says. 

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