Russia's New Internet Blacklist

The government now says it can shut down certain sites at will. Theoretically? All of YouTube could theoretically be blocked.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin answers questions from the Internet during a 2006 TV appearance. (Itar Tass/Reuters)

Russian authorities have been given the green light to shut down Internet websites carrying information deemed harmful to children. A controversial new law came into effect on November 1 under which authorities can now close sites promoting child pornography, suicide, or substance abuse, without the need for a court decision. The law also targets sites that a court has ruled extremist.

The legislation, formally intended to protect children from offending Internet content, has prompted fears it could be co-opted to stifle the lively political debate taking place on the Russian Internet. "This law can be seen as one of the elements that can, if the need arises, curb freedom of speech," says information rights expert Ilya Rassolov.

The Democracy ReportThe law is the latest in a raft of restrictive bills pushed through parliament in recent months, including legislation that dramatically hikes fines on protesters, made libel a criminal offense, and forced foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to register as "foreign agents."

Free-speech advocates say the creation of an Internet "blacklist" could lead to widespread censorship. Critics also fear authorities could use the new legislation to block opposition websites by planting banned material. Reporters Without Borders slammed the Russian government in a statement for failing to "resolve the law's contradictions and to eliminate those that pose threats to freedom."

'Sounds Like a Joke'

Russian Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov himself warned that the law could result in Russians being denied access to YouTube over its posting of a recent anti-Islam film that sparked deadly rioting across much of the Muslim world. "It sounds like a joke, but because of this video," he wrote on Twitter in September, "all of YouTube could be blocked throughout Russia."

For Russian Internet groups, there is the added concern that the new law could damage the appeal of Russia's booming online industry. In the run-up to the bill's adoption, the Russian-language version of Wikipedia shut down its page for one day in protest, and Yandex, Russia's top search engine, ran a black banner on its homepage.

"One thing Yandex and other Internet companies disapproved of was the possibility of IP blocking," Ochir Mandzhikov, a Yandex spokesman in Moscow, said. "This seems exaggerated to us since absolutely decent sites can be targeted for carrying bad content. We also consider that the list should be open so that people can better understand which sites are blocked and why. This lack of openness and transparency is generating concerns." Mandzhikov says Yandex will nonetheless abide by the new law and hopes it will be implemented without "any excesses."

Hacker Attacks

Roskomnadzor, the federal service for the supervision of communications, information technology, and communications, has been tasked with implementing the new legislation. It has opened a website to inform the public. But the site has yet to publish its "blacklist" of banned Internet resources.  Users are instead asked to enter a specific web address to check whether it has been placed on the list. Roskomnadzor says the site has already fought off several hacker attacks.

Under the new law, the owner of the site or web host must remove offensive content or block access within three days of being notified. If the site is still accessible after this period, Internet service providers are asked to shut it down.

Despite the controversy, a number of analysts say the law is a first step toward bringing some transparency to the Russian Internet. Information rights expert Rassolov says the legislation will also make the "K" department, the Interior Ministry's cybercrime-busting agency, more accountable. "As we speak, the 'K' department is closing websites. Every day, sites are shut down," Rassolov says. "The law simply spells out the rules of the game, the norms according to which this is done. Despite all the talk surrounding this law and how it can be used, it's still better to have transparent procedural norms than not. How this law will be implemented is another issue."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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