Blackout: why Russian internet sites are going dark over anti-piracy laws

Blackout: why Russian internet sites are going dark over anti-piracy laws

5 Августа 2013

Alexander Shubin is on fire. He’s standing in front of a colossal monument dedicated to the 1905 Russian revolution. It’s an appropriate place to be given that events that year sparked a wave of strikes across Russia and he’s talking about an impending boycott of cinemas throughout August. It’s not the cinemas he’s against per se, but the films they screen.

Although a history professor by day, the 48-year-old is here, outside Ulitsa 1905 Goda metro station, in his capacity as a member of the Pirate Party of Russia. Shubin is one of several speakers at this concert-cum-rally to protest against an anti-piracy law which takes effect today, 1 August. Under the legislation, lobbied for by representatives of Russia’s film industry, websites suspected of hosting pirated material risk being blocked even before their case is reviewed in court. «We are living at a time of political repression and now there will be internet repression too," says Shubin.

The 100-strong rally on Sunday was a precursor to a much bigger day of action today, when roughly 2,000 websites will take part in an «internet strike» to protest against the anti-piracy law. Some critics argue that the law is couched in vague terms, making it open to interpretation; others say it will inevitably choke online innovation. Accordingly, for one day, participating websites, which include torrent trackers, IT forums and online libraries, will either shut down or go dark, displaying only a message about the strike.

Beyond the strike, organisers are exhorting netizens to replace their avatars with black squares and to refrain from buying any copyrighted content for the whole of August. Despite the low turnout at the rally, where copyright-free music was blasted from speakers, a petition to abolish the law was launched on 2 July and has already gathered around 56,000 signatures, more than half the number needed for it to be debated in the Duma.

The Pirate Party of Russia are taking their cue from Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, WordPress and more than 100,000 other websites which switched off or blacked out their pages last year to protest against SOPA and PIPA, two anti-piracy bills in the US. In their case it worked: the bills were shelved within days. In the Russian case, however, those in the tech industry agree that such an outcome is unlikely. «There may be a statement about the need to amend the laws to accommodate legitimate concerns," says Anton Nossik, a popular blogger and former journalist. «But the reality is that nothing will happen.»

As a result, a number of internet companies have voiced their concerns but chosen not to participate in tomorrow’s strike, most notably Yandex and Russian Wikipedia. «We don’t believe in these kinds of activities," says Vladimir Isaev, a spokesman from Yandex. «We think the most constructive path is to collaborate and impact on the way the law will be applied and how the authorities will execute it.»

Under the anti-piracy law, once a complaint has been lodged, courts can give websites 72 hours to remove the allegedly offending content even before the claim is verified. What’s more, the law even applies to hyperlinks leading to copyright-infringing content, which, argues Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst at the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC), «is how the internet works».

This means that sites such as Wikipedia, which host millions of hyperlinks, are vulnerable to being blocked. Anastasia Lvova, a member of Wikimedia Russia, a branch of the US-based foundation behind Wikipedia, says that the burden will now fall on the encyclopedia’s volunteers to check every link to ensure its legality. «So we may be blocked one day or grow more slowly, depriving people using the Runet [Russian internet] of information one way or another," she says.

Websites that fail to comply with court orders risk having their IP address blocked. Such measures are considered highly flawed within the internet industry because numerous, unrelated websites occupy the same IP address. «Of course fighting piracy is important but not when legal internet companies are in danger," says Kazaryan. «Blocking, specifically IP blocking, is simply evil.»

For now, the law covers film and television, targeting the hosts of illegal content rather than users of pirated material. But it is expected to widen its ambit to include music and possibly images later this year. «Unfortunately, internet piracy has now reached very serious levels," said Robert Schlegel, deputy chairman of the Duma Committee for Information Policy, Information Technology and Communication on 14 June. «According to various evaluations, it causes losses of up to 60 billion roubles a year. Unfortunately, self-regulation does not work. Therefore, a law is necessary." According to Kazaryan, the legislation is in direct conflict with the Russian Civil Code, which enshrines fair use; a principle that allows the public to freely use limited portions of copyrighted content for specific purposes such as education and news reporting. A second concern is that companies will use the law to block rivals.

The speed with which the bill was passed by the Duma and ratified by President Vladimir Putin — three weeks — points to other forces at play. Both Kazaryan and Nossik cite a meeting in May between Putin and representatives of the film industry, after which the law was made a top priority. This also meant that the bill’s architects failed to consult any stakeholders. «The proponents of the law absolutely refused to talk to anyone in drafting the law," says Nossik. «No Yandex, no Mail.ru. They made a point: we are not interested in your opinion." The RAEC even prepared their own draft version of the law based on talks with Vkontakte, Yandex and others in the industry, but it was shrugged off. «That’s in the style lately of our legislative branch," says Kazaryan.

The anti-piracy legislation is one of a series of controversial laws that has been passed over the past 12 months which, taken together, reflect an expansion and intensification of state control. The only ameliorating factor, says Nossik is that, «for the most part, the laws that have been passed are not even properly enforced.»

Last November, the government launched a blacklist law, handing power to the authorities to block content deemed harmful to children or that promoted suicide or drug use. Although the law’s detractors argued it would be used to silence political opponents, the reality has been markedly different. The vast majority of websites that have been censored — more than 95%, according to RuBlackList, an internet watchdog set up by members of the Pirate Party of Russia — are victims of IP address blocking technologies.

The remainder have been blocked for carrying information on drug use or suicide. The most high-profile cases include the Russian Wikipedia entry on cannabis, and an online library hosting The Anarchist Cookbook and its recipe for pot soup, both of which were unblocked after the offending content was edited or deleted. Less fortunate was the fate of the «suicide-promoting» YouTube tutorial for Halloween make-up, which was banned in February and continues to be inaccessible in Russia.

What the passage of the anti-piracy and blacklist laws further reveals is a lack of consistency within the government, which has for the past few years trumpeted the importance of an indigenous tech sector. Projects like Skolkovo, the high-tech hub on the outskirts of Moscow, have received billions of dollars. But, says Nossik, «these laws neutralise any of such efforts being made.»

Critics of the two laws maintain that, even if they are not strictly enforced, they create an unfavourable climate for the internet industry. «At this point, I don’t think we can have another Yandex," says Kazaryan. «There’s so much competition on the markets and a young entrepreneur will see what Russia can offer and what other countries can offer. With these regulations, why stay here when you can go to Europe or the US?«Yet even those opposed to the law agree that something must be done to curb the online piracy that’s rampant in Russia. In December, the Office of the US Trade Representative published its third Notorious Markets list, an inventory of countries that infringe intellectual property rights both off and online. The report describes Russia as a «hotbed of piracy», singling out websites such as Vkontakte, the second most visited site in Russia, according to online analytics firm Alexa.com. Vkontakte, often dubbed Russia’s Facebook, is infamous for being biggest deposit of pirated video and music content in the country. Also listed is Rutracker, a BitTorrent site that’s currently the 16th most popular site in Russia.

But just like the opponents of SOPA and PIPA, those fighting Russia’s anti-piracy law argue that the movie and music industries need to find more creative solutions to tackling online piracy. «You can’t police your business model with a stick," says Nossik. «It won’t work here or in the US. Not with SOPA, not with PIPA, not with our copyright law. You can’t expect millions of Russians and Chinese to pay the full amount for a track, it’s not realistic.»

According to research by the RAEC and the Public Opinion Foundation, 64% of Russian internet users don’t even know if the content they watch online is illegal or not. However, one-quarter of the 30,000 respondents in the same poll said they would pay for quality content. And around a third said they would use legal streaming sites. «What we need is a Russian Netflix or a Russian Hulu," says Kazaryan. «We need really great legal options.»

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