19 Ноября 2012
ON NOVEMBER 11th Russian internet-users began to notice that Lurkmore, a sometimes funny, often vulgar website with a cult following, was no longer accessible. Lurkmore (pictured) is a user-generated encyclopedia, a Russian-language wiki
Wikipedia focusing on obscure internet jokes and memes, or what its co-founder, Dmitry Homak, calls “the kind of stuff said by the characters on SouthPark”. Although no one had officially told Mr Homak anything, it soon became clear that the site had fallen into the Russian government’s “Single Register” of web content to be banned under a law passed by the Duma in June.
The law came into force on November 1st. It requires Roskomnadzor, the state’s media monitoring agency, to maintain a list of content to be banned in three categories: child pornography, instructions or propaganda for drug use, and material promoting suicide. The law also allows for a site or page to be blocked in accordance with any court order: a vague, potentially wide-ranging clause that has given rise to worries over censorship, given the frequent politicisation of the Russian judicial system.
The register itself is not public, but any user can check to see if a particular web page or site is blocked through a state-run portal. So far, more than 180 sites have been added to the list, the government says—though that number will surely grow, as various state agencies and local courts make their own additions, and internet users submit potentially offensive material. Lurkmore ended up on the list for its entry on “dudka,” which means “penny whistle,” or in its slang usage, a bong or some other pipe for smoking marijuana.
For the first two weeks of November, few people paid attention to the implementation of the blacklist or which sites had ended up there. But the case of Lurkmore drew immediate attention on the Russian-language internet—itself a rapidly growing community of around 50m users, representing an online market that will soon overtake Germany’s. However lowbrow its humour or marginal its popularity, Lurkmore was the kind of generally innocuous, admirably irreverent site whose troubles now seem a harbinger of online censorship to come.
The lack of transparency in the blocking process raises further questions. As Irina Levova of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications notes, Lurkmore appears to have been blocked by IP address, a technique that has two obvious drawbacks: first, offending sites can simply change IP, as Lurkmore itself did, to avoid the ban; and two, such an approach risks blocking access to dozens if not hundreds of other, unrelated sites that may share the same IP. For Ms Levova, Lurkmore is “vivid example” of the many drawbacks of the new law.
Both before and after its passage, Ms Levova and colleagues visited the Duma, the Ministry of Communication, and Vyacheslav Volodin, the chief of staff to President Vladimir Putin. They offered their technical advice, suggesting tweaks to the wording of the law and its implementation, so as to be less of a burden on internet companies and less of a disruption for users. “We were ready for dialogue,” Ms Levova says, “but nobody listened to us.” In the end, Ms Levova says, the suggestions of experts were “ignored” and the law came into force with little thought as to how it would be carried out.
According to research published by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two experts on the Russian security services who have studied internet controls in Russia, the only way internet service providers (ISPs) can comply with the new law is through “deep packet inspection,” or DPI. With DPI, ISPs can filter internet traffic into separate streams, making it easier to block particular services, such as Skype, or pages, such as a certain Facebook group. DPI provides the technical backbone for internet filtering and control in China and Iran, among other countries.
Yet Mr Soldatov notes that two factors keep Russia from having a Chinese-style firewall—at least for now. The first is that the law does not block or criminalise the use of proxy browsers that mask what sites a user visits and keep browsing anonymous. But Russia may be headed in this direction: a September article in Izvestia said the Duma will soon add amendments to the internet law banning such services, including the popular service Tor, which masks online activity. Second, Mr Soldatov says is that Russia has not outlawed the use of secure browsing protocols, https, used by Facebook, Gmail, and other sites with sensitive personal data. But he says that some ISPs have already been approached by Russian security agencies and told to prepare for such a possibility.
All this is expensive and unwieldy. In a rush to pass the law and with little time or enthusiasm to listen to outside experts, the Duma did not allocate any additional funding or personnel for maintaining the internet blacklist. Deputies “thought it would work on its own somehow”, says Ms Levova. For its part, Roskomnodzor is not particularly enthusiastic about having to update the register twice a day, a chore for which it received no new staff.
Meanwhile, experts have put the cost for ISPs at implementing the new law at $10 billion. Their reason for resisting the law is more financial than political or moral. But relief may be coming: a Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Robert Schlegel, has suggested that the government will pick up their costs for installing and maintaining DPI.
All of this has the IT industry in Moscow worried; it’s hard to make business plans and raise investment when it’s unclear how the internet will function in the coming months and years. Moves toward internet filtering send a contradictory signal at a time when the Russian government has made technological innovation an economic priority. As a manager in a Western technology company says, the new law makes the environment for foreign investment in the Russian technology sector "more tense and less transparent".