On July 10, the Russian-language Wikipedia greeted its millions of users with a largely blank page and a message asking them to “imagine a world without free knowledge.” The impetus for the web site's one-day protest: Russia's leaders are moving toward the creation of a "great firewall," along Chinese lines, to limit what the country's Internet users can see and read.
The next day, the lower house of Russia's parliament passed a bill that, while ostensibly aimed at protecting children from information that could be “harmful to their health and development,” allows broad censorship of the Internet. It sets up an official roster of websites containing forbidden information, including child pornography, “propaganda of drug use,” information that “may cause children to undertake actions threatening their life or health” or “any other information banned by court decisions.”
The government is supposed to contract a Russian organization, to be named later, to compile the roster of banned websites. The only way to appeal inclusion in the roster will be to go to the courts, which are notoriously loyal to the Kremlin. “Unfortunately, the practice of Russian law enforcement suggests a high probability of the worst-case scenario,” protested the blog service LiveJournal, which provides a platform for a host of opposition activists.
President Vladimir Putin's own increasingly liberal Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights denounced the bill: “Many Internet resources with legal content may suffer from mass blockage since the system introduces tough restrictions on the basis of subjective criteria and judgments.”
Protecting human rights and the free flow of information wasn't high on the agenda of the bill's authors, most of whom are from the Kremlin-loyal United Russia party. They got into parliament as a result of last December's blatantly rigged elections. The Internet, especially blog services and social networks, has provided a highly visible venue for protests against those elections and Putin's authoritarian rule in general.
The primitive system proposed by the Russian bill is not exactly comparable to what happens in China. The Golden Shield, as China's system of Internet censorship is officially known, works through a system of filters placed on servers between foreign networks and strictly licensed Chinese providers. Unlike Russia, China has tens of thousands of Internet police, and the list of “offenses” that leads to a site being blocked is much broader. It includes transgressions such as “making falsehoods or distorting the truth” and “injuring the reputation of state organizations.”
Russian anti-government activists, though, see the new bill as only a first step. “The Kremlin crooks have realized that paid commentators or robot networks will not help them in their ideological war on the Internet,” wrote anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. “Now it's going to be simple: They will leave a comment on any site, blog or forum dealing with how to make LSD from cereal, and send the site owner running around the courts for months trying to prove he did nothing wrong.”
Internet experts argue that there is no effective way to block content on the Web. Writing on the opinion website Chaskor, Andrei Kolesnikov, who heads the .ru domain's coordination committee, cited the example of a popular site called torrents.ru that was banned for spreading pirated intellectual property. The site immediately migrated to the .org domain, and, according to Kolesnikov, the added news exposure boosted its traffic by 10 percent to 20 percent. “I will take the liberty of suggesting that a black list of resources will give 'bad' resources extra popularity,” Kolesnikov wrote, adding that even the effectiveness of Chinese filters was overrated.
Migration to other domain zones or addresses is a better solution for real child pornography purveyors than for legitimate sites that may displease the government. Wikipedia's problem is that it contains pages that could fall under the proposed restrictions, such as articles on suicide or narcotic substances. As a result, the entire ru.wikipedia.org domain could be taken down. That's why Russia's lively Wikipedia community, which counts more than 800,000 members, 12,000 of whom have made changes to Wiki articles within the last 30 days, voted for the one-day strike.
“Russian Wikipedia's strike is a correct, timely and adequate reaction to this shameful circus,” one of the pioneers of Russian Internet, Anton Nosik, wrote in his blog. “For the past 12 years I have been happily confident that the Russian government will have the intelligence not to introduce censorship on the Internet... But the situation is changing.”
One of the bill's drafters, Yaroslav Nilov of the ultra-nationalist LDPR faction, claimed that Wikipedia's “leadership” had not actually read the bill, even though one of the few Russian-language Wikis that remained active during the strike provided analysis of its text. “Let's see what happens a year after the bill is passed,” Nilov said. “We'll take a look at national suicide statistics before and after. Then we'll have a full picture.”
On the other hand, it is possible that restrictive measures will prove more damaging for Russia's current leadership than for Internet users. As Kolesnikov of .ru pointed out, the Chinese firewall "can exist only within the framework of China's cultural environment and customs. Here, it would be totally unique and damaging to the nation's reputation.”
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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