Russian authorities are working with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to selectively block offensive content, to avoid a total ban of the sites.
The New York Times reports that Russia has in recent weeks been making use of child protection laws passed in November 2012 designed to provide the state with powers to block content deemed “harmful to their health and development”. It supplemented a law that already allowed it to block illegal or extremist material — the latter being far more at risk of loose interpretation.
On the surface implementation of the law is not looking too bad. However critics have been quick to argue that it allows for interpretation and could open the doors for a China-like Great Firewall. In a fairly giant warning signal, Vladimir Putin’s Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights warned before the law was passed that it could “cause massive closure of honest resources”, hinted that extending the “collective responsibility” beyond law enforcement and to telecoms providers could lead to censorship and suggested the law would threaten Russia’s internet economy. It recommended the draft be withdrawn and reassessed, lest an “electronic curtain” be swept across society, having a “destructive effect on the rights and opportunities of citizens of Russia, on the development of society in general and the formation of the whole economy”.
Some of these fears seemed justified when the law was first passed in November. The state compiled a database of blacklisted URLs, domain names and IP addresses, and immediately began blocking sites that appeared to advocate (albeit, sometimes, satirically) suicide or drug-taking. Once those sites removed the offending content, they were reinstated. Since telecom service providers could be held liable for not protecting children in these instances under the new law, the likelihood is that providers will comply and initial reports suggested that sites were being taken down immediately, rather than after giving owners 24 hours notice as dictated by the law — perhaps demonstrating an over zealous fear-induced desire to please the state.
According to the owner of one such blacklisted site, Lurkmore.to, site owners are guilty until proven innocent under the new law. “All sites are now on the presumption of guilt,” the owner said in an interview (Google translate). “Every time you will have to prove that we did not have anything in mind”. In the case of Lurkmore.to, an online encyclopaedia, it referred to a page on marijuana.
Thus far the law has not been outrageously misused and appears to be doing more good than harm. But critics would argue it’s only a matter of time before that changes, considering Russia’s track record over the past few years in curbing freedom of speech using dubious applications of the law. However if it is treading lightly to avoid entirely alienating millions of social media users, this might be enough to keep the law focused on only removing truly threatening content, as was indisputedly the case with the Facebook page promoting suicide.