State of Internet Censorship in Russia

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

Social Media Censorship

Recently, Facebook has been accused of actively censoring the accounts of conservative bloggers. As might be expected, Facebook posters from the opposite end of the social and political spectrum have reported liberal censorship as well. Perhaps the problem isn’t a systematic political bias, but instead overzealous application of censorship defined by Facebook’s community standards. Individual interpretation of proscribed content categories may lead to erring on the side of “protection” of users rather than protection of free speech.

Diane Sori, a blogger for Patriot Factor, reports that she has repeatedly been blocked from posting. As an experiment, The Examiner attempted to post some content, and was warned to slow down before being blocked for two days. According to the website FacebookCensorship.com. Facebook has actively been censoring conservative content for some time now, while leaving left-wing and liberal content untouched, even if it could reasonably be deemed as offensive.

As counterpoint to the discussion of conservative censorship, Liberal Lamp Post presents examples of censorship of liberal posts, specifically in blocking links to a liberal guide to Republican talking points and other material, with blocks lasting for 15 days. Commenters on the site go on to note examples of apolitical areas of animal rescue, OxFam charity, and outside-US issues that have also been blocked under the banner of anti-spamming.

In October last year, Facebook came under fire for censoring an anti-Obama meme posted by the account Special Operations Speaks (SOS). While Facebook is known to have an automatic spam detection filter, it also has a staff of human moderators who manually check content for anything deemed offensive or inappropriate. The deletion of the anti-Obama meme was done by one of these moderators in accordance with Facebook’s policy.  Facebook subsequently reversed the decision and apologized for it. Because of these decisions and reversals, many people feel the policies are incomprehensible and/or inconsistently applied.  For instance Facebook has prohibited photos of breastfeeding mothers and drunk people sleeping with things drawn onto their faces, but not crushed heads, excessive blood, or humorously offensive content.

In December 2012, Richard Gage, the founder of an organization known as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, found that his page had been taken down along with the pages of several of his peers. A reporter for the alternative news website Infowars, Darrin McBreen, has also had his page removed, having been told by Facebook that he “should be careful about making political statements” and that “Facebook is about building relationships not a platform for your political viewpoint.”

Facebook supposedly instituted the community standard policies in order “to balance the needs and interests of a global population,” and to protect its users from spam, hate speech, and abuse. This is a reasonable position given how quickly the user experience would degenerate if automatic spammers and abusive trolls were allowed to run amok on the network. The problem, of course, is that no organization can be completely neutral and that what constitutes offensive content is always subjective. Attempting to police the content of users who question the truth of 9/11, criticize Barack Obama, or spin Republican talking points certainly seems misguided, even if it is not politically motivated.

Used as a political tool, Facebook could be incredibly powerful. In 2010 and 2012 elections in the United States, Facebook allowed users to tell their friends when they voted.  According to Facebook’s research, this may have increased turnout by as much as 2.2%.  But as Harvard University Professor Jonathan Zittrain has pointed out, Facebook could use this power to try to influence elections; what if they only showed the voting message to people that they thought were from one party?  To be clear, Facebook hasn’t done such a thing.  However, this thought experiment demonstrates the risks if Facebook is not even handed in their content removal policies.  Couldn’t skewing the content removed (and the content that remains) influence the political leanings of users in the same way an “I voted” message would?

Going beyond systematic political censorship, is it appropriate for Facebook to impose any censorship through the lens of the sensibilities of the moderators? It’s difficult for individuals to maintain total objectivity in controversial areas once they are authorized to judge posts against vague policy that simply cannot provide rules for consistent treatment of every possibility. Personal bias is likely to creep into moderators’ interpretation of the already lengthy community standards. Moreover, in order to keep operations cost low, Facebook moderators are given only half a second to look at each page. As a result, they might miss controversial content or make mistakes when determining whether content is ‘appropriate’.

Facebook could avoid this problem by taking a more hands-off approach to potentially offensive content.  While Facebook has chosen to implement a comprehensive policy, outlawing anything which they deem to be violent or threatening, hate speech, bullying, spam, pornography, fraud, as well as anything which violates copyright or encourages self-harm, Twitter has chosen a far more liberal policy.  Twitter allows almost everything except pornography, copyright infringement, threats and impersonation of someone in a way that is meant to be misleading. Twitter does have a policy which allows them to remove content following a government request, but they don’t have to do so, and have already refused to do so several times. Rather than banning a user or deleting “offensive” content, Twitter instead helpfully suggests that users simply block users that they find offensive. It seems clear that this is a sensible option, which preserves the so-called offender’s right to free speech and allows each user to make a personal decision on what is and what is not acceptable.

Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor

China’s New Leaders and the Strengthening of Online Censorship

Internet censorship in China, which has long been pervasive, has become even greater in recent weeks, to the point that even those in China who could usually find ways to get around the imposed restrictions are struggling to view sites such as gmail.com and imdb.com.

The LA Times reports that the tech-savvy Internet users in China wishing to access social networking and other sites that are routinely blocked, such as Twitter, Facebook and also, more recently, the New York Times, could previously download VPN software that would allow them to bypass the “Great Firewall.” A VPN tool encrypts users’ web activity and ‘scal[es] the Great Firewall by logging on to a server overseas to use as a proxy to access the outside Internet’.

However, VPNs have been less effective of late.  According to some reports, users are experiencing problems including ‘access denied’ messages and even software crashes after a short period of usage. Many commercial VPN services have stopped working.

This apparent crackdown on VPNs seems in contrast to what appeared to be fewer restrictions on microblogging.  For instance, the largest and most significant Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo, began allowing users to search for top government leaders by name, a function which they had previously blocked.  Sina Weibo also allowed criticism of lower-level government officials to be more specific, which led to investigations and dismissals of several officials.

However, Michael Anti, the prominent journalist and commentator on Chinese social media, told Voice of America News that these changes did not in fact signal new openness for microblogging. “CCTV, the national TV station, has already had the function of criticizing and monitoring local corruption since the 1990s. Now they’re repeating the same thing on Weibo,” he says. “I don’t regard this as progress. It just proves Weibo is now becoming a part of central media.”  Anti points out that Weibo has a team of censors that filters out and rigorously monitors anything that could be classed as a threat, including any mention of China’s top leaders.

Following the legislature’s proposal on December 24 for requiring real identity registration before accessing online services (ostensibly to help prevent the occurrence of online fraud), experts suspect that Chinese censors have found a way to detect VPN connections and block them.  The VPN providers claim that these issues are due to apparent changes in the firewall, with state media responding that Chinese law does not protect them if they have not taken the required step of registering with the government.

While many were hoping that the change in China’s leadership, which takes place once every ten years, would result in greater freedom for the approximately 500 million Internet users in China, it appears that Beijing authorities may be tightening the existing restrictions.  Their actions suggest that the new leader, Xi Jinping, is at least as worried about online content as his predecessor.

The concern for those in power is that the publication of stories about government corruption pose a threat to government stability. “'[The powers that be] are still very paranoid about the potentially destabilising effect of the Internet,’ said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ‘They are on the point of losing a monopoly on information, but they still are very eager to control the dissemination of views‘”.

In addition to censoring content, regulators have proposed rules which would keep foreign companies from distributing items and material such as books, music, and news.  Both companies and Chinese scientists have complained that  this level of restriction does more harm than good. For example, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 74% of companies said unstable Internet access “impedes their ability to do business.”

Unfortunately, Willy Lam (Chinese University of Hong Kong) says that Chinese leaders feel that the cost of Internet censorship is both sustainable and worthwhile, and that compromise the issue is unlikely to be reached any time soon.

Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor

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