A new Russian law that threatens Internet censorship came into effect on November 1, 2012. The regulations require Internet Service Providers to blacklist any online resource that contains child pornography or promotes drug use and suicide. A registry of all blacklisted websites can be found on a portal [ru] run by ROSKOMNADZOR, a government agency in charge of monitoring the media, along with an online form [ru] allowing members of the public to report new offenders.
Although the website and blacklist have been up and running for almost two weeks, it wasn’t until this Monday, November 12, that Russian bloggers and netizens took any real notice. The casus belli was the blocking of one particularly popular website. The site in question is Lurkmore [ru], a Wikipedia-like compendium of articles on Internet culture and memes, written in an irreverent style with heavy use of internet jargon.
Russian internet culture in many ways runs parallel to Anglophone internet culture. Lurkmore, for instance, is a Russian version of Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED), a similar and older Anglophone resource. As ED itself explains:
Russian Lurkmore was created because no Russian wants to speak MOTHERF—–G ENGLISH, but wants to read lulzy articles anyways.
In keeping with the RuNet’s insular nature, Lurkmore was founded and is updated by members of image boards similar to 4chan.org. (Though the infamous 2ch.ru was closed in 2009, here is a list [ru] of most functioning Russian language image boards.) None of this is to say there aren’t still foreign influences — a large proportion of the slang used in Lurkmore articles is directly translated from English. For example, “suddenly” (as in “suddenly, cats!”) is translated as «внезапно», while “delivers” (as in “anonymous delivers!”) is translated as “доставляет.” Curiously, both examples are direct-from-dictionary translations, which make absolutely no grammatical sense in Russian, when used in their slang context.
Such borrowed slang has quickly spread into general Russian internet discourse since the website’s founding sometime in 2008. However, Lurkmore’s main value added is in its articles on uniquely Russian internet phenomena and folklore. Besides memes, it tracks famous internet personas and bloggers, making it an invaluable source for research and gossip about the movers and shakers of the RuNet. One needs only to look past its sophomoric humor.
Of course, it’s the humor that makes Lurkmore so popular. It has a much higher Alexa page-rank than Encyclopedia Dramatica; quite a feat, given that its potential audience (Russian speakers) is so much smaller. It is also much more popular than the Absurdopedia [ru], another humorous Russian wiki. This disparity probably explains why the RuNet reacted so strongly on Novermber 12, when Lurkmore was blocked because of an article on drugs, but no one took much notice when Absurdopedia was blocked for an article [ru] on “How to Properly Commit Suicide” a week earlier, on November 3.
Both Lurkmore and Absurdopedia were unblocked as soon as they deleted [ru] the offending articles (although, interestingly enough, a copy of the suicide article is still up on the Absurdopedia mirror [ru]). Even though Lurkmore came back online barely a day after the block was implemented, that was enough time for a slight hysteria to set in. Oleg Kozyrev, an opposition blogger and formerly a candidate for the Coordinating Council, didn’t beat around the bush writing a post [ru] entitled “The Russian internet is being murdered as we speak” (Российский интернет прямо сейчас убивают).
In this post, Kozyrev points out that the new law produces a high level of uncertainty and unpredictability for Web developers, which in turn will have dire consequences:
А теперь скажите, после всех этих странностей с беспорядочным блокированием ресурсов, какой безумец захочет вкладывать деньги в российский интернет? [...] Заметим, теперь уже не важно – в зоне ru находится проект или в зоне com – отключают ведь не столько сайт, сколько аудиторию. Это означает, что стартовать в русскоязычном интернете отныне почти невозможно и как минимум очень рискованно.
Now tell me, after all these strange happenings with random blocking of resources, what madman will want to invest in the Russian internet? [...] Note also, that now it doesn’t matter if the project is in the .ru zone or the .com zone, it’s not the site getting turned off, it’s the audience. This means that a startup in the Russian speaking internet is now almost impossible or at least very risky.
According to Kozyrev, now any website can be blocked for one single offending page, which threatens social networks most of all.
Когда в #говнореестр внесут одновременно весь вконтактик и весь рутрекер, в этой стране и случится революция.
When the #shittyregister simultaneously includes all of VKontakte and all of RuTracker, that’s when this country will have a revolution.
Ironically, while the Facebook-clone VKontakte is still safe, RuTracker, Russia’s premier torrent forum and tracker, did get blacklisted this week, along with the popular online library Lib.rus.ec. While both are hotbeds of piracy, they were blacklisted in accordance with the new law, not intellectual property statutes –- RuTracker for distributing [ru] an “Encyclopedia on Suicide,” and Lib.rus.ec for hosting a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook [ru]. In retaliation for these offenses, Russian image board activists successfully DDoSed [ru] the website of the Safe Internet League [ru], the watchdog organization many hold responsible for the new law.
The attack on the League, however, did not stop many other sites from being blacklisted. (Russia’s Pirate Party has been keeping track of them here [ru].) Some seem to have been blocked with good reason. For instance, New Legal Stuff [ru], which distributes “legal powders” and “aromatherapy mixes,” is quite obviously an online drug dispensary.
Other blacklisted sites have prompted even more ridicule than Lurkmore and RuTracker, which were at least blocked according to the letter of the law. Such was the case for a Russian forum of the internationally popular MMORPG Eve Online, which was blocked [ru] because of an article on directions for in-game use of in-game drugs and stimulants for fictional player characters. The Federal Bureau of Drug Control, which requested that the page be blocked, must have read only the article's title, “A Manual for the Use of Drugs,” and investigated no further.
Such blunders make the law seem more ridiculous than it is, argues Danila Lindele, press secretary to Duma Deputy and blacklist-supporter Ilya Ponomarev. In his blog, Lindele wrote [ru] somewhat pessimistically:
Людей, которые возмущены ситуацией вокруг Луркоморья и вообще интернет-цензурой, не так много. Лично я вообще только вчера узнал о существовании этого сайта.
There aren’t that many people who are outraged by the Lurkmore situation and internet censorship in general. Personally, I only yesterday found out about the existence of this website.
While one may disagree with Lindele’s opinion on censorship as a political issue, it is true that Lurkmore probably gained a larger audience as a result of this debacle (its Alexa traffic rank jumped by more than a thousand points during the last couple of days). The website certainly remains optimistic about the future, judging at least by the confidence displayed on its official Twitter account [ru]:
Официальная позиция: мы все-таки надеемся вернуть удаленные научно-популярные статьи.
Official position: we're still hoping to restore the removed popular-science articles.
Perhaps they are right. Maybe one day, Russians will once again be free to read humorous encyclopedia entries on marijuana. Until they can, declarations about a “murdered RuNet” are likely to continue, whether or not they're really warranted.