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The Day Russia's Libraries Stood Still

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

On July 2, 2013 three of Russia's popular online libraries blocked user access to their websites and collections as a way to protest a new law aimed at combating internet piracy (see RuNet Echo coverage here [GV]), which passed Russia's lower house of parliament on June 21, 2013. For a period of 24 hours any visitor of Flibusta.net [ru], Maxima-Library.org [ru], or CoolLib.net [ru] was redirected to identical black error-screens, with an image that read “Error 451F” [a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Ray Bradbury novel] at the top of the page.

Error message found on Russian library websites on July 2, 2013. Screenshot.

Error message found on three Russian library websites on July 2, 2013. Screenshot.

Below lay the following message:

Государственная Дума разрабатывает серию законов, которые дадут чиновникам возможность заблокировать любой сайт в Рунете. Быстро и безнаказанно. Первая ступень уже принята и вступит в действие 1 августа. Следующие запланированы на осень. Через год многие сайты могут выглядеть вот так. Что делать? Протестовать. На их стороне деньги, власть и врожденная анацефалия. На нашей – техника, наука и устремления миллионов людей.

The State Duma is working on a series of laws which will allow bureaucrats to block any RuNet website. Quickly, and without consequences. The first stage has already passed [the current law deals only with video content, A.T.] and will come into effect on August 1. The subsequent stages are planned for the fall. In a year, many websites could look like this [one currently does]. What to do? Protest. On their side is money, power and congenital brain failure. On ours — technology, science and the aspirations of millions of people.

The pages also linked to an online petition [ru] hosted at OnlinePetition.ru, which currently has just under 80,000 signatures. (Interestingly, while there was also a link to the Russian Online Initiative webpage [GV], there is no associated petition there.) The petition calls for the repeal of the law, describing it as unjust and harmful to Russia's economy.

The three online book repositories are not alone in their protest. Earlier, on June 24, several Russian websites run by the entertainment conglomerate “Look at Media” pulled a similar stunt [ru], shutting down their services for an hour with a similar message — a black screen saying “this is pretty much what it will be like come August 1″. Rublacklist, an internet watchdog associated with the Russian Pirate Party, has also been strongly critical of the law and has called for a general internet “strike” [ru] on August 1, when the law comes into effect.

Meanwhile, Russian programmers are working to make such a strike a possibility. For example, one user of the Russian tech-blog Harbrahabr has created a JavaScript based application that allows webmasters to easily implement a blackout. The script has a few neat features. For one, while it blocks users from accessing the webpage, it comes with an optional “Continue” button that allows users to use the website after they view the message. It also comes with all sorts of “social” buttons, which will allow people to like, tweet, and otherwise share the information on social networks.

A proposed blackout mock-up created by an anonymous programmer on Habrahabr.ru. Screenshot, July 2, 2013.

A blackout mock-up proposed by an anonymous programmer on Habrahabr.ru. Screenshot, July 2, 2013.

The reasoning behind the proposed blackouts is the same as that which led the Russian Wikipedia to strike for a day last July [GV], when it protested against censorship proposals couched in terms of defending Russia's minors. Critics of the anti-piracy law maintain that just like last year's legislation, which resulted in the creation of a Russian internet blacklist [GV], the true intentions of the legislators lie elsewhere. A Habrahabr user described the law in the following way [ru]:

Готовящиеся и уже принятые законы не направлены на решение проблем современного копирайта. Антипиратская реторика используется в качестве прикрытия для цензуры и окукливания Рунета.

Both the upcoming and the already adopted laws are not aimed at solving the problems of modern copyright. Anti-piracy rhetoric is being used as a cover for the censorship and closing off of the RuNet.

Of course, unlike Wikipedia, the three websites that were striking on July 2 do in fact host a lot of pirated content (along with many public domain works a la Project Gutenberg), which lends a certain ironic air to their rhetoric. It should be said that reading pirated versions of e-books is perhaps the simplest thing one can do on the RuNet — no downloads, torrents or peer-to-peer networks are required. Simply go to one of the many websites that host online libraries, search for a book, click on the link, and read in your browser. Because most of the content is in Russian, these websites have so far failed to attract the ire of the international anti-piracy forces.

But even if they had, the Russian reading community is extremely resilient — for instance Flibusta.net (with an Alexa rank of 645 in Russia it is the most popular of the blackout participants) is pretty much a clone of an older website called Lib.rus.ec, which incidentally did not take part in the blackout. A few years ago Lib.rus.ec [ru], the biggest pirated e-book website at the time, “sold out,” or went legitimate, (depending on one's point of view) and started to charge a monthly fee for e-book downloads (it is still possible to access and read the books for free through the website). That's when someone created Flibusta, a website that mirrors Lib.rus.ec's content. Presumably, if the current crop of online libraries gets shut down something similar will eventually happen. In such circumstances Nikolai Durov, brother of Pavel Durov, co-founder of the social network VKontakte, and a critic of the anti-piracy law, doubts [ru] that trying to involve the general public will work:

Я не особо верю в действенность подобных мер. Возможно, они нужны для очистки совести — “не говорите потом, что мы не предупреждали.”

I don't really believe in the efficacy of such measures. Maybe they are there for a clear conscience — “don't tell us that we didn't warn you.”

Durov is probably right — unlike the successes of the Internet lobby in the US in defeating SOPA, Russian “freedom of information” forces appear to be fighting a losing battle. Although, perhaps if Durov's website were to shut down for an entire day there would enough of a public outcry to effect change.

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