Russia has a long history with Internet censorship, but recent legislation gives the government more power than ever to restrict online speech. Russia’s government has not needed special legislation in order to stifle online speech. For example, in 2004 the Kremlin pressured Lithuania into shutting down the Kavkaz Center, a website of an independent, international Chechen news agency. In June 2012 attackers subjected the same website, this time being hosted in Sweden, to a massive distributed denial of service attack (DDoS), resulting in its takedown. Although the attackers are unknown, there are indications that Russia was behind the DDoS.
Although the Russian government has proven adept at restricting access to online content, the government recently endowed itself with broad new powers over online speech. In July 2012, the Russian Duma passed an internet censorship bill. In general, free speech is protected under the Russian Constitution; the Constitution of 1993 declares Russia as a democratic, federative, law-based state, guaranteeing its citizens’ right of free speech in Article 29. These protections, however, leave room for the state to exercise police powers to ensure the safety of its citizens, and it is under that authority that the Duma enacted this law. Ostensibly, the law aims to protect children from child pornography, drug use, suicide and other “harmful content.” In order to effectuate the protection, the bill requires ISPs to block specific websites that appear on a secretive government blacklist.
Before the law was even implemented, a court ordered the shutdown of the entirety of LiveJournal (not as part of the government blacklist) due to a single neo-Nazi blog entry among the thousands hosted on the popular site. Recently, the government censored LJRossia.org, formed to support freedom of speech, over two posts which contained stories involving motives of child pornography. Instead of blocking or removing the particular posts, the entire site was made inaccessible on at least one Russian ISP, RosTelekom. Additionally, the site hosted blogs of at least two prominent journalists who have often been critical of the Kremlin: Andrei Malgin and Vladimir Pribylovsky, the latter of whom published a database that exposed government corruption.
Once ISPs implemented the blacklist, among the first websites to be integrated into the blacklist and blocked was Lurkomore, a satirical equivalent of Wikipedia, along with a Russian 4chan based discussion board – 2ch. 2ch and Lurkomore are especially popular among the Russia’s tech and hacking communities, frequently focusing on discussion of questionable topics, mocking of the president, drugs and violence. Despite the ban, the owners of these two sites circumvented the ban by switching to different IP addresses. Subsequently the ban on Lurkomore was removed after the owners deleted the pages featuring information on illegal substances.
In total more than 180 sites have been banned since the law came into effect. Although it is not possible to see the blacklist in its entirety, it is possible to check if a specific site is on the blacklist through an official government portal.
It is already apparent that the government can use the blacklist law to restrict content far beyond that which is dangerous to children. Despite this potential for overreach, Internet censorship in Russia has not yet reached China’s level of censorship. The Russian law does not yet criminalize use of proxy browsers that mask visited sites and keep browsing anonymous. This allows the use of software such as the Tor Onion Router to access restricted websites. The Duma has considered adding amendments to the law to include banning of services such as Tor, yet these amendments are currently unenacted.
It’s entirely possible that the Duma will only toughen the censorship laws in the future, particularly given the vibrancy of anti-Kremlin sentiment on online message groups and communities. However, even without amendments, the law could have substantial impacts on online speech in Russia. Even before the law went into effect, the government had proven adept at censoring online content. And in its current state, the vague language of the law allows wide-ranging interpretations and the censoring of websites in accordance with court orders.
Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor