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Russia's Internet Censorship “Experiment”

A Russian federal region is about to embark on an “experimental” project aimed at censoring the internet. A joint effort by the Kostroma regional government and an NGO called the League of Safe Internet, it is similar in spirit to Russia's new internet blacklist [GV] and other censorship measures championed by the League in the name of protecting children. (The governor of Kostroma region, Sergey Sitnikov, also happens to be the former head of Roskomnadzor, which runs the blacklist.)

League Chairman of the Board, religious businessman Konstantin Malofeev. November 20, 2012. CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

League Chairman of the Board, religious businessman Konstantin Malofeev. November 20, 2012. CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

However, in a bizarre case of life imitating art, the League's new venture also fulfills a satirical prophecy covered by RuNet Echo last December [GV]. Back then, RiNet, a boutique Moscow ISP, announced a “unique payment plan” called “Clean Internet” which guaranteed that its users will only see “decorous websites”. Under the plan, users could only access websites from a list vetted by the ISP. The list included such crowd-pleasers as www.kremlin.ru, www.gov.ru, www.government.ru, and little else.

Unfortunately, the details of RiNet's absurdly satirical press-release, the sole purpose of which was to ridicule ongoing internet censorship efforts, are remarkably close to what awaits internet users in Kostroma, down to the name of the project. A few days ago this real “Clean Internet” was explained [ru] to a reporter by a League representative:

Пользователям из тестового региона будут доступны только те страницы и сайты, которые проверили эксперты лиги.

Users from the tested region will only be able to access those web-pages and sites that were verified by league experts.

The consequences of such censorship would go beyond something like a work-safe content filter. After all, for any website (out of the hundreds of millions that exist) to be accessible, it would need to first be verified by a human “expert”. That is, any website could be unilaterally blocked by the League, which has strong ties to the Kremlin and to the Orthodox Church. Users of popular tech forum Habrahabr pointed out that this would particularly be a problem with foreign language websites [ru].

Others jokingly wondered [ru] about the financial motivation for such a move:

stenogriz: [...] Тут можно еще и доп заработок получить. Тарифные пакеты! Тарифный пакет «Базовый» — доступно 5 сайтов; тарифный пакет «Домашний» — 10 сайтов, теперь и с YouTube! Тарифный пакет «Профессионал» — 100 сайтов. [...] Тариф «Тролль» — возможность выбора любого ника. отличающегося от паспортных данных и возможность писать комментарии (не более 3 в сутки). [...]

stenogriz: [...] You can use this to get some extra cash. Subscription packages! “Basic” package — access to 5 websites; “Household” package — 10 websites, now with YouTube! “Professional” package — 100 websites. [...] “Troll” package — ability to choose alias different from passport info and ability to write comments (no more  than 3 per day). [...]

Perhaps most disturbingly, statements made by League representatives made it seem that, unlike with the satirical “Clean Internet”, users will have to opt out of the process [ru] if they want to access “unverified” websites:

Суть эксперимента состоит в том, что сайты порнографического содержания будут закрыты, а пользователь, желающий получить доступ к ним, должен будет обратиться к провайдеру и заключить с ним договор, предоставив свои паспортные данные.

The gist of the experiment is that pornographic websites will be closed, and the user who wants to access them will have to go to their ISP and make a contract with them, submitting their personal information.

One Livejournal user wondered [ru] about possibly nefarious consequences of the opt-out hurdles:

Человек должен раскрыть свои аспекты личной жизни. Его внесут в базу, уже будет не “благонадежным”. Истинный гражданин и патриот не может смотреть порно. Он должен смотреть только программу “Время”, выступления президента и патриарха.

A person has to open up all the aspects of his personal life. He will be entered into a database, and now you cant be “trustworthy”. A true citizen and patriot can't watch porn. He can only watch the news, the president and the patriarch.

When questioned about this alarming aspect [ru], the Kostroma governor's office claimed that users would in fact have to subscribe to participate in the experiment. Since statements to the contrary by League representatives are difficult to misinterpret, it appears that there is internal misunderstanding or disagreement about the scope and brief of the project.

RuNet will keep watching this story to see what happens and how users react if their information becomes less than free. Some are already pessimistic [ru]:

Если vk.com и mail.ru будут в списках, большинство ничего не заметит.

If [the social netowrks] vk.com and mail.ru will be included in the [white] lists, the majority won't notice anything.

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