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Laws, cheap web filters arm Russia to block news, says Censored Planet

When Daniil Kislov tried to view the website of Fergana from his computer in Moscow on November 1, his browser showed him the now-familiar notification that the independent news outlet he directs had been blocked by order of Roskomnadzor, the national agency that regulates the internet in Russia, he told CPJ. Fergana has been blocked on and off by different internet service providers (ISPs) since the order was first issued last month.

Censorship is nothing new for Fergana, which covers Central Asia and reports being blocked previously in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Access has since been restored in those countries, the site reported. As of October, Fergana said, its site was otherwise only inaccessible in Turkmenistan, a country that recently placed in the top three of CPJ’s 2019 list of 10 most censored countries, alongside Eritrea and North Korea.

Research published yesterday suggests the decision to block Fergana occurred at a time when internet censorship has significantly expanded in Russia—a troubling sign for press freedom in a country where CPJ routinely documents journalists harassed and murdered with impunity. Censored Planet, a University of Michigan-based research project, analyzed leaked blocklists signed by Roskomnadzor to build a picture of how the country has imposed censorship over the past seven years. While the report doesn’t provide the reasoning behind individual blocking orders, it does document the gradual emergence of a censorship agenda that extends to news and political information.

Instead of a centralized government-controlled infrastructure similar to China’s Great Firewall, Russia has passed laws to successfully coerce over a thousand privately owned ISPs into restricting access to content on the list, according to Censored Planet. The Russian censorship model, which was promulgated in terms of security and child protection, and facilitated by affordable filtering technology, is a reminder of how easily the tools that help democratic societies manage online content can be co-opted as instruments of control.

“It was long thought that large-scale, synchronized censorship on decentralized networks like Russia, where the networks are controlled by private ISPs with different incentives, is hard to achieve,” according to Roya Ensafi, a University of Michigan assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and one of the authors of the Censored Planet report. Their research challenges that assumption, she told CPJ by email. Russian authorities have established an inexpensive national censorship policy by “forcing the ISPs to implement the censorship, and imposing fines on them if they don’t comply,” she said. The methods it has used to tighten control “are applicable to networks in countries all over the world.”

China has poured resources into maintaining the Great Firewall that it has used to block online content for more than 20 years, but by the time Russia decided to take a tougher stance the internet was already decentralized and hard to take control of. As Emily Parker, a former journalist who has researched internet activism in China and Russia, wrote for CPJ in 2017: “It is probably too late to cut Russia off from the World Wide Web.”

That didn’t stop Russia from trying, though it became known for a censorship approach that Censored Planet’s report characterizes as a “naïve.” In April 2018, for example, internet users and advocacy groups, CPJ among them, objected when Roskomnadzor indirectly blocked millions of IP addresses in an attempt to restrict access to the popular Telegram messaging service. Though the effort was easy to bypass and largely ineffective in restricting Telegram usage, more than a million of those addresses were still blocked in mid-2019, along with other online content about protests, anti-corruption campaigns, and censorship circumvention, according to Freedom on the Net, a project of the U.S.-based pro-democracy organization Freedom House.

Russia may be refining this blunt approach as it takes advantage of “more advanced technologies such as deep packet inspection,” which make it “relatively easy and cheap for [ISPs] to comply” with Roskomnadzor orders, according to Censored Planet. The degree to which ISPs comply, and how they do it, has varied widely in the past, Censored Planet found.

But new legislation may change that. On November 1, the same day that Kislov was testing Fergana in his browser, Russia’s “sovereign internet” law came into effect, the BBC and other international media reported. Before it passed, CPJ opposed what is sometimes referred to as the RuNet, or Russian internet law. This requires ISPs to install deep packet inspection equipment, according to Human Rights Watch.

The law will mean that “Roskomnadzor can supervise the enforcement of the blocklist firsthand,” Ensafi said. “For now, Roskomnadzor decides which ISPs need to install them,” she said, referring to the specialized equipment, which media reports have pointed out will take some time to roll out nationwide. But, she said, “once all ISPs are mandated to deploy these devices, Russia will possess a completely synchronized, centrally managed censorship system.”

Security and child protection—the rationale used to justify the development of the blocklists back in 2012—along with the fact that website blocking can still be adjudicated in the courts, help provide the system with a veneer of due process. But Roskomnadzor’s growing authority is cause for concern, given the frequent anti-press interventions CPJ has documented by the agency.

Roskomnadzor spokesperson Vadim Ampelonskiy did not immediately respond to CPJ’s November 6 email requesting comment on the agency’s press freedom record, blocklists, and order to block Fergana.

Other moves to control the flow of news online came in March, when President Vladimir Putin signed into law new measures granting Roskomnadzor power to assess whether or not news is “fake,” and penalize anyone accused of using the internet to distribute it, or to insult state symbols and representatives, Reuters reported. The law has already been invoked to remove news, according to the independent news website Meduza, which reported that Roskomnadzor asked news outlets to delete reports about graffiti considered insulting to Putin in April. At least five appeared to have complied, though a Roskomnadzor spokesperson told Meduza the communication was intended only to “test potential enforcement mechanisms.”

In Fergana’s case, Kislov expressed concern to CPJ about the apparently arbitrary decision to block the site, and said that he intends to challenge the order in court.

“[Roskomnadzor] did not warn us before blocking and did not explain the reasons why,” he said, describing the process that is supposed to protect websites from overreaching censors. “Nothing like this was done by them.”

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The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Iranians Global Network.

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