MOSCOW - This summer there was an unpleasant surprise for many Russian Internet users – the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia was shut down.
Of course, it was only for one day. “Imagine a world without free knowledge,” the home page said, instead of the usual search functions. “The Wikipedia community is protesting censorship that is dangerous to freedom of information.”
The reason for the protest was a proposed law in the Russian Duma regarding the protection of children from harmful information. The idea behind the proposal was perfectly legitimate. It would create a blacklist of sites with content such as child pornography or information on, for example, how to commit suicide, and those sites would be blocked. It was introduced by people not normally suspected of trying to force something down our throats.
But to many, the proposed law is an attack on Internet freedom. They are worried that it is really an attempt to set up a Russian version of the Great Firewall of China, as the strict Chinese Internet filter system is often called. In spite of the protests, the law was adopted, and went into effect last week.
Above all, there is a blacklist of all sites considered inappropriate. The government has set up a special site (zapret-info.gov.ru) to manage the blacklist. Of course, users cannot actually see a list there, but anyone can type an address into the search function to see if it is on the blacklist.
Users can also file complaints about any online resource they do not like or which they believe has harmful information. Experts will investigate each complaint, but the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technology would not comment on the identities of those experts are nor give details on how they would conduct investigations. Final decisions about whether or not a site should be blocked will be made by three government agencies: the Federal IT agency, the consumer protection agency and the federal narcotics bureau. Their decisions will be made administratively, without consulting a court of law.
The site’s owners will then be notified and will have to fix whatever the violation is, or be blacklisted definitively. The offending IP address will be blocked, a blunt enforcement method that could block innocent sites that use shared servers. At the time this article went to press, less than a week after the law went into effect, six sites had already blacklisted.
State monopoly on digital info
The government ministries will probably not be able to manage the blacklist on their own, and they will probably be assisted by nonprofit organizations.
Officials are using that fact to try to calm down the law’s opponents, saying that there will not be censorship. They said that once they have a little more experience with the law, they might even consult with Wikipedia about its implementation. But not everyone believes it. Since last March, Reporters Without Borders has been warning of the risk of a widening government monopoly over Internet information in Russia.
According to experts, that is not the only risk for the Russian Internet. The real problem facing websites and Internet users is hacker attacks and the increased cost of protecting against them. It seems likely that consumers in Russia will be expected to pay substantially more for Internet service because of all the technology needed to protect against hacking. In the worst-case scenario, Russians will be paying more for Internet access but getting less information.