Protest against internet censorship in St Petersburg. Demotix, Roma Yandolin. All rights reserved.
On 15 March, a Russian court holds preliminary hearings for YouTube’s case against Rospotrebnadzor – the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare. YouTube is the first organisation to take one of the most controversial laws passed by the State Duma - one which imposes internet censorship - to court.
How Russia’s online censorship works
The law passed in November last year - “Amendments to the federal law on protecting children from information harmful to their health and development” - allows authorities to create blacklists of websites containing information that the Kremlin dislikes, and shut these websites down without judicial decision. The mechanism stipulates that law enforcement authorities tell a host and/or telecom access providers that a website has been blacklisted. Websites could end up on the list for publishing content deemed to be either pornographic, extremist, or encouraging suicide or drug use.
The "extremism" excuse for shutting down a site has sparked concern among Russia's leading human rights activists. The concept of "extremism" as defined by Russian legislation is quite vague: anything that law enforcement agencies might consider "dangerous to the state" can be deemed to be extremist, and in turn persecuted. Anti-extremism legislation is traditionally used against opposition activists, but it's also been used to censor others. A historian or a library that publishes Hitler's Mein Kampf online runs the risk of being labelled an extremist, unless they also explain that it is a dangerous book, only to be read to understand the "enemy's ideology".
Roskomnadzor informs providers when a website has been blacklisted. The provider informs the website owner, who then must delete the offending content. If is not removed within 24 hours, the provider must block not only the URL of the controversial material, but also the domain name. If a provider fails to block the site, they are then forced to share responsibility for the content with the website's owner.
According to the law, the website owner has three months to appeal the block in court. Despite having the chance to appeal, the odds are still against the blocked website. The law does not stipulate that owners be compensated for profits lost by the website being taken down. Activists say that the loss could jeopardise the existence of independent online media outlets, who may be bankrupted by the process. There's also the problem of Russia's notoriously biased courts. Anti-extremism legislation has been used to persecute activists long before the legislation on blacklists was passed.
In addition to the vague definition of extremism, rights activists have also stressed that the free speech online will also be limited by the blocking of not only the url of the controversial material, but also the entire website. The equipment used to implement the law is also problematic (such as Deep Packet Inspection), which can be used to block sites like Facebook and other forms of social media popular amongst opposition members and human rights activists, threatening the ability of activists to freely discuss the Kremlin's policies, and plans to protest. None of these issues have been resolved yet - which is why YouTube's lawsuit is likely to set an important precedent. Rospotrebnadzor demanded that Roskomnadzor block a video entitled, How to cut veins, a make-up tutorial video for Halloween. YouTube representatives say the ban's criteria for blacklisting is not defined clearly enough, and that the discussion on online filtering has only just started.
While initial attempts to control the Internet in the noughties required a court ruling, the new law allows prosecutors to bypass a court decision. While television was gradually turning into the mass propaganda of Putin's United Russia party, the growing access of Russians to the web threatened the party's stronghold on information. As more Russians get online (as of last year, 58 per cent of Russians are online), it is no coincidence that Russia's biggest protest rallies to date have been organised, discussed, and promoted through online media and social networks. Putin has now turned his attention to the online world, despite not seeing it as a priority in the past. During a meeting with the Federal Security Service board this February he said, "firm measures must be used against different kinds of extremist structures, blocking the radicals' attempts to use information technologies, internet resources, and social networks for their propaganda.”
What is censored
The “blacklist law” went into effect last November, and rights activists’ worst fears have been confirmed by the ever-growing list of blacklisted content. The most detailed and reliable monitoring of such bans are done by Agentura.ru information agency, led by Andrei Soldatov, Russia’s leading expert on security forces.
While the law was officially created for protecting children from harmful information, it was actually designed to control Russia's internet. Among the first banned internet materials were the six video clips of Russian punk feminist punk group Pussy Riot, prosecuted for their ‘punk prayer’ against Vladimir Putin. And they're not alone: most of law’s first ‘victims’ have had little to do with child protection: online encyclopedia Lurkmore.to, digital library lib.rus.ec, torrent tracker Rutracker.org, Google’s Blogger and YouTube. Apart from the Pussy Riot videos, all of these websites were eventually removed from the Roskomnadzor blacklist. So far, YouTube is the only site to dispute the blacklisting in court. The beginning of 2013, according to Soldatov, has been marked by a growth of internet filtering, along with another new and dangerous threat. The League for Internet Safety (LIS) (which is close to the Kremlin) has pushed for the creation of a “white list” of Russian websites in the Kostroma region - for the time being. It is expected to include one million websites by April. Local Internet Service providers signed new contracts with users, giving them access only to “white listed” websites. Although Russia’s Ministry of Communications and Mass Media didn’t support the initiative, LIS is likely to carry on with its controversial activities.
YouTube’s trial is a chance for civil society to find a way to strike back against the Kremlin, rather than protecting the creators of how-to-do-Halloween-make-up video. While attempts thus far to battle the law have been weak and disorganised, YouTube's challenge to the law could aid activists in fighting Russia's growing control of the web.