This autumn the Russian authorities have made it clear that they are intent on extending the blocking of websites. In September, two prominent State Duma members of the ruling United Russia party, Robert Shlegel and Maria Maksakova, submitted amendments to an anti-piracy law, prohibiting illegal distribution of movie. These entered into force on 1 August. The deputies propose to supplement the law with measures that protect the copyright of musicians, writers and computer program developers.
In November, Andrei Lugovoi, a MP from the rightwing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, submitted a bill proposing the extrajudicial blocking of sites containing calls for riots or extremist activities, including calls to take part in public events held deemed to be in violation of the established order. Hitherto, such sites have been subject to blocking by a court order. This initiative was met with general approval by members of the State Duma.
Chechen prosecutor seeks to block anti-Putin article
On 23 September the Chechen Republic prosecutor announced the filing of writs against internet service providers (ISPs), demanding restrictions on access to a website publishing the anti-Putin polemic “Putin’s plan is Russia’s misfortune”. The article is on the Federal List of Extremist Materials.
Chechen prosecutor moves against ISPs over Islamist material
On 11 September the Chechen Republic prosecutor announced the filing of writs to restrict access to a website featuring the Islamist piece “Zaiavlenie komandovaniia mudzhakhidov Vilaiata Galgaiche” (Statement of the Mujahideen commanders of Vilayata Galgaiche), which is on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The defendants were not identified in the report.
Smolensk prosecutor starts proceedings against ISP for video
On 11 September it was reported the Leninsky district prosecutor had issued a writ to the ISP MAN Set for allowing public access to videos included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The ISP complied with the writ and those responsible for allowing access faced disciplinary charges.
MTS receives a order to block video in Altai Republic
On 10 September the Gorno-Altaysk city court granted the Altai Republic prosecutor’s motion demanding that the ISP Mobilnye Telesystemy restrict access “to an extremist video clip posted on 16 websites”. The clip in question was not specified. The decision was made in the absence of the defendant.
Moscow court orders ISPs to block sites
On 25 September the Moscow city prosecutor reported that the Kuzminsky district court had accepted the demand of the Kuzminskaia interdistrict prosecutor that the ISPs Click and Obiedinennye Lokalnye Seti limit access to five websites that made available Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The prosecutor also demanded a block on a website containing citizens’ personal data.
Krasnodar moves against extremist posts on social network
On 25 September the Krasnodar regional prosecutor reported that the Adlersky district court in Sochi had accepted the demand of the district prosecutor that it define two Islamist texts published on the VKontakte social network as extremist.
Prosecutors move against website in Chechnya
On 11 September the Urus-Martanovsky district prosecutor filed a lawsuit demanding that ISPs limit access to a website for publishing the video Videovestnik Russkoi Molodezhi (the Youth Messenger), included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The case is pending.
Blogs targeted in Ulyanovsk
On 25 September the Ulyanovsk regional prosecutor reported that the Zavolzhsky district prosecutor had issued writs demanding the ISPs ER-Telecom Holding and Rostelecom cease offering access to the websites kcblog.info and t-kungurova.livejournal.com. Both are legally recognised as extremist [for being aliases] for the Chechen militants’ website Kavkazcenter.
Education and schools
Kamchatka schools told to shield students
On 13 September it was reported that the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky city prosecutor had issued demands that several schools install content filters to prevent access to websites containing extremist propaganda.
Lipetsk schools allowed access to banned sites
On 27 September it was reported that the Dankovskaia interdistrict prosecutor in Lipetsk region had demanded the director of Dankov Secondary School No 1 eliminate violations of the child protection law. An inspection had revealed that the internet filtering system installed on school computers was not blocking access to websites about drugs, pornography and suicide. It also allowed access to the texts of songs included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials.
Blind students ‘could read Mein Kampf’ in Omsk school
On 17 September it was reported that the Omsk city prosecutor had identified a number of violations at Boarding School No 14 for visually impaired children. In particular, the school computers allowed access to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, as well as to websites containing pornographic images, violence and drug propaganda.
University fined for banned site breach
On 3 September it was reported that the Sverdlovsk regional arbitration court had accepted the demand of a fine for B N Yeltsin Ural Federal University, issued by the Ural regional office of the watchdog Roskomnadzor. The university had failed to submit an application for an access code to the register of banned websites. As a result, students had access to resources included on the register. The court imposed a fine of 30 thousand rubles on the university. The court’s decision has not yet entered into force.
Penza prosecutor tries to block suicide prevention
On 11th September it became known that the local Penza’s prosecutor office asked the court to block access to the website Pobedish.ru (“You win”). The website is part of Perezhit.ru group – a suicide prevention resource that works with psychologists, psychiatrists, forensic experts and the clergy.
Kaliningrad prosecutor moves against suicide sites
On 23 September it was reported that the Moskovsky district court of Kaliningrad had received a prosecutorial request that the ISP TIS-Dialo restrict access to several websites describing methods of committing suicide.
Drugs and alcohol
Facebook almost blocked for advertising smoking blends
The Russian branch of Facebook came close to being blocked for publishing advertisements for illegal smoking blends in September, according to reports from the Itar-Tass news agency, citing Facebook’s Russian press service. Facebook said users had reported the ads for smoking blends on 16 September and the company had been unable to do so because of a technical glitch. The incident followed a warning from the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) that it intended to inspect social networking sites for ads for banned substances. The media watchdog Roskomnadzor subsequently warned Facebook that it had been provisionally placed on the register of banned websites and would be shut down if it did not remove the ads. Facebook announced on 19 September that it removed the offending content.
Reports filed on ISPs in Kurgan
On 18 September it was reported that the Kurgan regional office of Roscomnadzor had compiled reports on two ISPs that were not blocking access to websites advertising illegal drugs.
Yekaterinburg complains about alcohol advertising
On 17 September it was reported that Sergei Trushin, deputy head of the Yekaterinburg administration, had sent a letter to the regional office of the interior ministry requesting action against websites advertising the sale of alcohol. The Ministry of Internal Affairs shut down the sites and the people behind them were fined.
Gambling and casinos
Yekaterinburg ISP loses appeal
On 3 September it became known that the Sverdlovsk regional court had accepted the demand of the Kirovsky district prosecutor in Yekaterinburg that the ISP VympelCom-Communications block five gambling websites based on foreign servers. The demand had been accepted by a district court but the ISP had appealed.
Eight gambling sites blocked in Tomsk
On 12 September the Tomsk regional prosecutor announced that the Strezhevoy town prosecutor had filed a lawsuit against the ISP Danzer demanding restrictions on access to eight online casinos. The ISP complied by blocking the sites.
Rostelecom blocks William Hill
On 5 September Rostelecom blocked its subscribers’ access to the largest UK betting website, williamhill.com. The ISP Qwerty in Moscow and the surrounding region also blocked access to the site.
Rostelecom subscribers could not access the website’s primary domain, online casinos or online poker sites. Instead, they saw a message announcing that the domain had been blocked by court order or that the address had been placed on the register of banned websites.
Torrents and piracy
Moscow court bans 11 torrent sites
On 5 September Moscow city court accepted the claim of NTV-Profit against 11 online torrent sites — free-torrents.org, inetkino.org, rejtinga.net, nnm-club.me, hotbase.org, x-torrents.org, goldenshara.com, rutor.org, torrnado.ru, torrent-shara.org, nntt.org – that were distributing the popular Russian-made films Vor (The Thief), Krutoi Povorot (Sharp Turn) and Interny (The Interns).
Portal avoids block for streaming
On 5 September Moscow city court accepted a request by the Central Partnership Sales House requesting to block the torrent portal Rutracker.org to prevent it distributing the American films Now You See Me and Taken 2. Rutracker removed the films and avoided being blocked.
And the rest
Pussy Riot icon banned
On 9 September it was announced that the Tsentralny district court had granted a request by the Zheleznodorozhny district prosecutor of Novosibirsk to declare an icon-like image of Pussy Riot, created by the artist Artyom Loskutov, banned from distribution via the internet. The image has been added to the register of banned websites.
Block on inaccessible site demanded
On 24 September it was announced that the Yegoryevsk city court had granted the city prosecutor’s motion against Yegoryevskaia Telekommunikatsionnaia Kompaniia (Yegoryevsk Telecommunications Company) to limit access to an online casino website. Earlier, the same court had ruled in favour of the provider, but the prosecutors challenged the decision, and the Moscow regional court sent the case back for retrial. The Yegoryevsk city court ordered the provider to restrict access to the site, but the access to the website was found to already be blocked – perhaps, by the online casino’s owner or another operator. However, the court insists that Yegoryevskaia Telekommunikatsionnaia Kompaniia should be the one to implement access restrictions. The court provided no advice on how to block an already inaccessible site.
Stavropol prosecutor seeks block on e-library for one book
On 25 September the Stavropol regional prosecutor reported that the Novoaleksandrovsky district prosecutor had filed a claim in Leninsky district court against the Stavropol regional branch of Rostelecom, demanding restrictions on access to the website royallib.ru. The site provides public access to the book Skiny: Rus probuzhdaetsya (Skinheads: Rus Is Awakening) by Dimitri Nesterov, which is on the Federal List of Extremist Materials
Roscomnadzor blocks porn site
On 13 September it was reported that Roscomnadzor had included the porn site redtube.com on the register of banned websites. The reason for placing the site on the register was not specified, but it might have been because it published a cartoon entitled “Hentai school girls fucking for better grades”.
TV channel targeted in Moscow
On 6 September it was announced that the central investigations directorate of the ministry of internal affairs in the Moscow Region had demanded that the website of Dozhd (Rain) TV channel be blocked for violation of Part 2 of the Criminal Code Article 282 (“incitement to hatred or hostility and humiliation of human dignity”). TV Dozhd is the country’s most popular online TV news channel and is relatively independent. The exact nature of the material deemed objectionable was not reported. The Ru-Center domain registrar confirmed the existence of the police request, but, since the request was filled out incorrectly, the TV channel website was not blocked. Interior ministry representatives subsequently denied the reports. The administration of Dozhd also stated that they had received no such orders from the ministry of internal affairs.
Saratov ISP ordered to ban ads for bankrupt company
On 6 September it was reported that the Kirovsky district prosecutor in Saratov had filed a lawsuit against the ISP Saratovskaia Sistema Sotovoi Sviazi (SSSS) demanding that it restrict access to an internet portal advertising a bankrupt company. The ISP refused to block the relevant IP address because it was also used by three unrelated sites. In addition, the provider stated that it had no control over IP address changes, while an advertiser could always change it. However, the court granted the prosecutor’s claim and ordered the ISP to restrict access to the site.
ISPs fined in Moscow and Saratov
On 3 September it was announced that the Moscow arbitration court had fined the ISP KMC Telecom and that the Saratov regional arbitration court had fined the ISP Hemikomp for ignoring the requirement to sign up to the register of banned websites. In both cases, the decisions were made based on evidence from the media watchdog Roskomnadzor. It said the ISPs’ reluctance to register and block access to websites listed on the register was in violation of Part 3.14 of the Administrative Code (entrepreneurial activity without state registration).
Amur ISPs reported for non-compliance
On 14 September it was reported that the Amur office of Roscomnadzor had filed administrative responsibility reports against the following ISPs: Amurtelekom, A- Link, Transsvyaztelekom, Inter.kom, KRUG, GudNet, Moia Komputernaia Set, Gorodok, and Edinaia Gorodskaia Set. Roscomnadzor demanded penalties for their failure to comply with the register of banned websites. If the violation is not addressed, each provider faces a fine of up to 40,000 rubles.
Consumer protection site temporarily blocked
On 26 September it was reported that www.i-zpp.ru, a consumers’ rights website, had been added to the register of banned websites. The addition was triggered by the decision of the Salekhard city court of 18 April 2013 to block access to websites containing extremist materials. The consumer protection website had been blocked because it had the same the IP- address as extremist websites. In late September the site was, once again, accessible from Moscow.
Owner loses appeal against ban
On 20 September it became known that Vladimir Kharitonov, the owner and administrator of the website Novosti elektronnogo knigoizdaniia (News of electronic book publishing, digital-books.ru), had filed an appeal with the Moscow city court against Roskomnadzor’s decision to include it on the register of banned websites. Kharitonov had previously attempted to appeal the decision, but the Tagansky district court dismissed his appeal in March. The Moscow city court did the same in September. The owner of the website intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Prosecutor blocks 15 Omsk sites
On 17 September it became known that the Omsk city prosecutor had succeeded in blocking 15 websites. Previously, the Tsentralny district court had dismissed the claim of the Omsk city prosecutor demanding that the local branch of Rostelecom restrict access to 15 sites selling certificates and diplomas. The prosecutor appealed the decision and the Omsk regional court overturned the lower court’s decision and ordered the internet provider to block the websites.
India’s University Grants Commission (UGC), amongst its other responsibilities, determines and maintains the standards of institutions of higher education in India. As a part of this duty, it had warned students that an institution called IIPM (Indian Institute of Planning and Management) is not a recognised university and does not have the right to issue certificates. The message on the commission’s website has now been blocked, following an interim court order by the Gwalior High Court in relation to a case filed by one of the companies owned by IIPM’s head — Arindam Chaudhuri — seeking to block defamatory content against his institution. The UGC site is not the only website affected by the order. On 15 February, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) requested Internet Service Licensees to block 73 URLs carrying content criticising IIPM. The sites included news websites such as The Times of India, Wall Street Journal, The Indian Express, Firstpost, Outlook magazine, Economic Times, Caravan magazine, the popular blog Kafila, and even some satirical websites like Faking News and The UnReal Times. The court blocked a total of 61 URLs.
Sites criticising an Indian business school have been blocked
The court did not inform affected parties of the block order. The founder of Kafila, Shivam Vij gave a statement to Firstpost on the matter saying that the move was “against the principle of natural justice. The court blocked the URL of my blog without giving me a chance to defend myself.”
Indian news agencies and think-tanks have been questioning the method and the necessity of such an order by the court, and whether or not it opened the door to censorship. Noting the value given to free speech by courts in democracies, experts at the Center for Internet and Society has expressed fears that “the court order has moved away from the settled principles of law while awarding an interim injunction for blocking of content related to IIPM”. The hurry in which the court ordered websites’ blocking is worrying, and even India’s government is planning to challenge the court order, as it involved one of its own sites (UGC).
The lack of transparency in this action also points to two facets of the fight for online freedom in India. The first is that internet service providers are the vehicle through which sites can be blocked when specific sites do not comply. In an interview with Firstpost, Chaudhuri claimed that Google had failed to comply with a previous court order to remove “defamatory” content about his business. The other is that despite the length to which Chaudhuri has gone to curb any criticism of his institution, in a wired world it is next to impossible. Hackers have not only crashed his website, but social media users have also slammed Chaudhuri’s move to censor the web, and #IIPM trended on Twitter for days following the incident. They have, in turn, been copying the blocked text of censored articles online.
In the meantime, it has now been revealed that IIPM is actually licensed under the Shops and Establishments Act, rather than the UGC. It will be tough to stop this information from going viral, but Chaudhuri can certainly try.
Even rainstorms can be sensitive in China. The recent storm in Beijing which killed at least 77 people caused the censors to come out in force, with newspapers told to can coverage and online accounts of the deluge snipped.
But with 500 million internet users, the obvious question is, how does China do it? What are the mechanics of China’s internet censorship?
It makes things simpler if we divide the censorship first into two camps: censoring the web outside China and censoring domestic sites.
American journalist James Fallows very readable account of how China censors the outside web explains: “Depending on how you look at it, the Chinese government’s attempt to rein in the internet is crude and slapdash or ingenious and well crafted.”
Briefly, this is what happens.
Censoring incoming web pages
The public security ministry is the main government body which oversees censorship of the outside Internet through its Golden Shield Project.
The key to their control is the fact that unlike many other countries, China is only connected to the outside internet through three links (or choke points as Fallows calls them) — one via Japan in the Beijing-Tianjin-Qingdao area, one also via Japan in Shanghai and one in Guangzhou via Hong Kong. At each one of these choke points there is something called a “tapper” which copies each website request and incoming web page and sends it to a surveillance computer for checking. This means that browsing non-local websites in China can sometimes be frustratingly slow.
There are four ways for a surveillance computer to block your request.
The DNS (Domain Name System) block: When you enter a web page, the DNS looks up the address of that page in computer language (the IP address). China has a list of IP addresses it blocks, if your web page is on that IP address, the DNS is instructed to give back a bad address and you will get a “site not found” error message.
Connection Reset: Another the way the government prevents you seeing one of its blacklisted sites is not to return a bad address but to constantly reset the request, which is slightly more insidious since this kind of error can occur naturally. If it happened outside China you could press reset and the chances are the next time you would be successful. But in China the reset is intentional and however many times you resend the request you will get a “The connection has reset.”
URL keyword block: To cast its net even wider, the tappers also check the web address. If it contains any banned words, say “Falun Gong” or “Dalai Lama” the request is sent into an infinite loop, you never reach the site and your connection times out.
Content filtering: In this technique the content of web pages is scanned for banned words, with the connection timing out if any blacklisted words are found. This could for example, allow you to browse the Guardian website, but not access some of the new stories.
Censorship technology is continuously becoming more sophisticated, and words and IP addresses go on and off the blacklists.
Index contacted Jed Crandall, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of New Mexico and whose research has focused on Chinese internet censorship, to ask him if there had been much change to the above in the four years since Fallows’s article. Here’s what he said:
“It seems like filtering the content of the web pages using internet routers was not working well for the censors, and they even seemed to be devoting less resources to it over time as we did our experiments,” he told Index by email interview. “They still block IP addresses, DNS addresses, and do keyword filtering on GET requests [URL keyword block].”
Censoring domestic websites
Far more of a challenge to the Chinese government is keeping its homegrown internet in check. And this it does mostly by making sure the private companies that run most of the Chinese web self-censor by issuing threats, “vaguely-worded” laws and, in the case of emergency breaking stories, day-to-day directives.
Censoring professional content
Web companies self-censor in many different ways. Content which they produce themselves is “cleansed” first by the writer and then by editors if necessary. There are few specific censorship guidelines; it is more of an acquired habit of knowing where to draw the line based on fear of punishment. American scholar Perry Link wrote an eloquent essay back in 2003 — read it here — about how Chinese censorship is like an anaconda in the chandelier ready to pounce if someone oversteps that line:
The Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments–all quite ‘naturally.’
Censoring user-produced content
This is where it gets really interesting.
“Social media is more dynamic and fluid than traditional online content, so the censors have to be creative in how they control social media,” says Crandall.
Banned topics and sensitive terms are deleted by hand by armies (literally) of paid internet “police”. This, from a paper published here in June by a team of researchers at Harvard University:
The size and sophistication of the Chinese government’s program to selectively censor the expressed views of the Chinese people is unprecedented in recorded world history. Unlike in the US, where social media is centralized through a few providers, in China it is fractured across hundreds of local sites, with each individual site employing up to 1,000 censors. Additionally, approximately 20,000–50,000 Internet police and an estimated 250,000–300,000 “50 cent party members” (wumao dang) are employed by the central government.
More evidence for the lack of a hardcopy list of banned topics is that different online companies seem to censor different things.
One thing we’ve noticed in our research is that what various companies censor seems to vary widely from company to company, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious ‘master list’ of what companies are supposed to censor. They seem to make up their own lists based on what they think their liabilities would be if the government had to intervene.
For example, censoring in Tibet and Qinghai (a largely Tibetan province) is much stricter than in eastern parts of the country.
Recent reports on Chinese internet censorship have offered some surprising results. First, the Harvard paper referred to above analysed Chinese-language blogs and found that censors were targeting material that could have incited protests or others types of mass action, leaving material critical of the government uncensored.
A recent University of Hong Kong study on Weibo (China’s wildly popular version of Twitter) posts found that the list of words was changing constantly.
“What we are finding is a constantly morphing list of keywords, a cat-and-mouse contest between people and censors,” King-wa Fu, one of the study’s researchers, told the Economist last month.
“It appears that censorship was applied only long enough for the news about Wukan to change from sensitive news to a story of successful government intervention to reach a peaceful resolution to the problem,” the paper’s authors write.
(Wukan is the name of a village in southern China where huge clashes between the police and locals occurred over illegal land grabs late last year. The government eventually caved into the villagers’ demands and then turned the story in one of a provincial government victory.)
Chinese censorship has to move with the times, particularly now there are 500 million Chinese online, many of whom are ardent microbloggers.
Crandall believes that the government is looking into how to manipulate social media to influence the news.
I think what the future of internet censorship holds is more emphasis on control and less emphasis on blocking content. It’s very difficult to block some specific topic, but if you can slow down spread of news of the topic at some times and speed up spread of news about the topic at other times you can use that to your advantage to control how issues play out in the news cycles.
MORE ON THIS STORY:
Blogger Wen Yunchao wrote for Index on Censorship magazine in 2010 about the art of Chinese censorship. Read his article here.
Also writing for our magazine, Southern Weekend columnist Xiao Shu discusses the repressive and chaotic nature of China’s internet censorship here.
Read Chinese author and blogger Han Han’s essay about publishing and censorship in China here.
In the year since the original proposal was launched, parliamentarians have grown increasingly concerned by the lack of vision of the European Commission regarding the proposal’s aims. At meeting after meeting, commission representatives and the commissioner herself were unable to provide any evidence that blocking would serve a purpose, they were not even able to be clear on what blocking was meant to achieve.
They started by saying that blocking would “disrupt” commercial child-porn networks, until their own research showed that this is a small and diminishing problem. Then they said it was to stop accidental access, until they were unable to show this was an actual problem or that blocking would help. Finally, they said that it would help victims psychologically — although any policy which leaves abuse images on the internet is hardly likely to do this. The permanent retreat into ever-more facile arguments eventually started grating on parliamentarians who, like the citizens they represent, deserve better. A restriction on the right to communication cannot be based on soundbites and gut reactions.
At the same time, parliamentarians became increasingly aware of the damage that existing blocking systems are doing to both child protection and fundamental rights in those countries where it is already imposed. They saw how countries like Denmark and Sweden create blocking lists outside the rule of law, sometimes leaving whole websites abroad blocked but with no way of even knowing — the accusatory and defamatory blocking page being shown only to people in the countries doing the blocking.
The blocking approach in Denmark, Sweden and the UK breaks every element of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is neither “necessary” nor is it “prescribed by law” in those countries. How can child abuse material have such a low priority that its regulation is the only crime which does not require countermeasures to be laid down in law? Worse still, once the blocking veil is cast thoughtlessly and lawlessly over the allegedly illegal sites abroad and over government inaction to have the websites removed, countries promptly lose the will to take even minimal measures to address the crime. A Danish police official, for example, said in a speech to the German Federal Parliament that they don’t see any need to send reports of these serious crimes to the United States or Russia. Which other serious crime would be treated in this way? Why does blocking destroy the will of governments to treat online child abuse with the seriousness it deserves? Why would child protection organisations ever dream of supporting such a counterproductive measure?
This is the essence of the text agreed by the European Parliament’s Committee on the evening of 14 February. The text demands effective action against the crimes — it demands supervision of the member states’ efforts through a yearly report on their activities. It removes the obligation on member states to introduce blocking and places new measures on member states that insist on blocking in order to at least move in the direction of respect for basic fundamental rights. It chooses concrete child protection measures over symbols, excuses and failure. 14 February… a day to start loving the European Parliament.
Joe McNamee works as Advocacy Coordinatory for European Digital Rights in Brussels (EDRi). He works on issues related to privacy, cybercrime, intellectual property, freedom of information/communication and related topics.