How the Russian authorities control the Web, explained
By Daria Luganskaia
The censorship on the internet intensifies in Russia from year to year, as Reporters Without Borders and other NGOs report. The amount of blacklisted content is increasing. But how does the Russian way of filtering the Internet work exactly?
1. What do Russian authorities ban on the internet?
Russia has multiple laws allowing the authorities to block websites without a trial. It is not allowed to proliferate information about drug abuse, call for extremism (a vague term containing many things including public justification of terrorism and other terrorist activity or incitement of social, racial, ethnic or religious hatred), distribute child pornography or ‘propaganda of suicide’ (the promotion of suicide techniques).
All those laws are very broad, and there are lots of situations to use them, sometimes absurd. Dumb Ways to Die, a cartoon designed by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote safety, is banned in Russia because the authorities found calls for suicide in this animation.
2. How many websites are blocked in Russia?
Thousands of websites have been blocked since 2012. The main reason is so-called extremism. A nonprofit organization RosComSvododa shares their estimates.
– 218,259 sites for extremism and calls for protests (by orders of Prosecutor General’s Office);
– 218,006 sites containing drug-related content (by orders of the Federal Drug Control Service);
– 65,453 sites containing suicide propaganda (by orders of Rospotrebnadzor);
– 40,475 sites for the distribution of child pornography (by orders of Roskomnadzor);
– 677,561 sites for the publication of various prohibited information (based on court decisions).
Roskomnadzor did not answer to the inquiry of RuNet Explorer about its data.
3. Who blocks websites?
Roskomnadzor or the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media is the governmental body regulating the internet and media industry in Russia.
It is not independent like Ofcom in the UK. Roskomnadzor is a part of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications.
It was around for years, but it had no influence until 2012. That year the mechanism for blacklisting websites was introduced. First, Roskomnadzor gained a responsibility to ban websites containing child pornography, promotion of drug use, and pro-suicide materials. Its functions were written in the Federal Law “On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development”.
Shortly after, this mechanism was replicated in other laws. Now Roskomnadzor restricts access to websites for extremism and all the other things listed above. For each law, they have a special blacklist of prohibited websites.
The spokesperson for Roskomnadzor Vadim Ampelonsky stated multiple times in media that the role of Roskomnadzor is technical: they just put the laws into practice.
4.How does Roskomnadzor decide on which content to ban or censor?
Roskomnadzor acts both proactivity and reactivity.
Roskomnadzor has employees that look for abusive content. The head of Roskomnadzor told in an interview in 2014 that they had 20 people working on weeding through suspicious websites and content. The current figures are unknown: Roskomnadzor did not reply to RuNet Explorer.
However, the internet industry has some doubts about that. “I was at a Roskomnadzor’s conference. They occupied the whole hotel,” Karen Kazaryan, a senior analyst at Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC), tells RuNet Explorer. This organisation represents internet-related businesses in Russia.
Roskomnadzor also accepts orders of the courts and other official bodies such as the General Prosecutor’s Office. Some part of the complaints come from the pro-Kremlin youth organization “Young Guards”. Young people are encouraged to find more suspicious publications- they will receive a badge and other rewards in exchange, news media Meduza reports. Roskomnadzor and Young Guards routinely held conferences together to build ties.
5. So the regulator has some blacklists. But how do they ban websites exactly?
To put it simply, everything is banned at the source via the ISPs.
They have their automatic systems, and when Roskomnadzor includes an IP address to one of its lists, ISPs restrict access to it in their networks.
It does not happen immediately. Roskomnadzor first notifies the hosting provider, to warn the website owner, to take the incriminating content down. If the content is then not taken down within the appointed timeline of 24 hours, the website gets banned.
If an ISP disobeys such orders, it will be fined. These fines range from 50,000 to 100,000 rubles ($780-$1,560).
The problem is that an IP address is not the same as URL, the address of the website we see in our browsers. IP is a number that indicates where a website is hosted. Sometimes there are several websites hosted on the same IP. If one of them is banned, others disappear from the Web as well. Artem Kozlyuk believes that this type of banning and blacklisting is a key flaw of Russian law.
6. But can a website owner go to court if his website is blocked unlawfully?
Technically, yes. The owners of sites accused of publishing illegal content have a right to appeal the restriction in court, or to remove the controversial content. They can also move their website to another IP address. Typically, they change IP or remove controversial content, but some try to appeal in court.
Nobody has successfully appealed to such decisions in Russia. Kazaryan recalls only one case when a website fought in court. Vladimir Haritonov, the owner of the online library that was blocked by accident being hosted on the same IP address with a prohibited website, appealed even to the European Court of Human Rights. It happened three years ago, in 2013.
7. What about mobile applications?
There is no special law regarding mobile applications in Russia. For now, the regulator can only contact Apple or Google and ask to delete an application from their stores. It has happened with applications who broke copyright. Music app by Vkontake was deleted from App Store for the dissemination of illegal content.
Nothing related to politics has happened so far. There was no news about upcoming legislation as well. According to the head of Roskomnadzor Alexander Zharov, it is not necessary to create a special legislation on mobile applications. Instead, the laws regarding the internet should be applied to them.
8. Do authorities control even foreign platforms such as Twitter?
Andrei Soldatov,the co-author of Red Web, the recent book about the internet regulation in Russia, says:
The companies react to a request in correspondence to their rules.
Twitter revealed that Russian authorities submitted 1,735 requests for content removal between July and December 2015, but they did not comply with everything. Twitter found that only 5% of these requests violated Twitter’s rules and banned this content. The company did not react to such complaints as: the removal of links to YouTube videos with criticism of the Russian government; content related to Charlie Hebdo; tweets supporting Pussy Riot; or on a post citing a book criticizing Lenin and Stalin. Google said that it received a request from Roskomnadzor to remove a post on Blogger with news on attacks in Grozny and contacted the blogger, who then deleted that content.
9. Are there any specific laws about online media?
If a website is registered as “mass media” by Roskomnadzor, the regulator has an additional right to issue warnings to its management about “abuse of freedom of mass media” in accordance with Article 4 of the law “On Mass Media”. According to the law, it media could be prosecuted for extremism, incitement of terrorism, propaganda of violence and cruelty, propaganda of drug abuse, or obscene language. If a mass media website receives two warnings in one year, Roskomnadzor will cancel its license.
11. Can a blogger or a media organisation avoid Russian regulation somehow?
One popular solution is reporting abroad. A news online media Meduza launched in Latvia in October 2014 is now reaching a significant audience. Meduza reported on April 1, 2016, that the audience of its website reached 4.3 million in March. This publication is an example of the way to avoid potential risks of censorship by operating the company outside Russia.
12. Do the public and the Internet industry support governmental censorship?
The majority of Russians are not very concerned with the freedom of speech. According to the state-controlled polling and sociological research organisation VCIOM, nearly half of Russians support censorship on the Internet. An independent one, Leveda-centre, reports that 40 per cent of the Russians chose financial stability to the freedom of speech.
The Internet industry opposes restrictive laws and finds a dialogue with the government. But these efforts are rather sporadic. As Andrei Soldatov stresses they do not have an independent organisation that would lobby their interests.