Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Russian Govenrment Cracking Down on the Internet

First the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs established the Россвязьохранкультура, or Rossvyazkhrankultura, which roughly translates as the Russian Online Culture Protection Service. Among other things, the Rosokhrankultura will eventually use data mining (now it is still done manually) to identify sites which carry “extremist” material (which is already illegal in Russia).

Note: in Russia, the definition of what is extremist is somewhat open to interpretation. The news and human rights site is currently fighting the Moscow courts to avoid being declared extremist and closed. In November 2007 the site was closed more directly, when local ISPs blocked access and redirected visitors to a p*rn*graphic site). Their court case, which is was set for April 11 in a Moscow court (the government appealed after the Supreme Court of Ingushetia refused a request by the Ingushetian Public Prosecutor's Office to close the site), but that court refused to hear it on the grounds that the case was not within its juridiction and instead directed it to the Kuntsevo District Court, where Magomed Evloev the owner of the site in question, is registered. That it in the courts at all instead of just closed is because of timing; the case predates the creation of the Rosokhrankultura, which can simply declare sites “extremist” without any court involvement. The entire investigation is reported to have been initiatead by the FSB. The English news articles I could found about this have since been taken down, but here is a cached version of one. The same applies to coverage of the hearing itself.

The role Rosokhrankultura is not purely cultural of course (otherwise it would have bee formed as part of the Ministry of Culture, as opposed to the security-minded Ministry of Internal Affairs), but technically it has no power beyond identifying the sites. Enter the General Prosecutors Office; they were just given the power to close “extremist” sites. This is not the most important part, however. They were also given the power to suspend operations of Internet Service providers (ISPs) that host such sites. The option to shut entire businesses if they do not cooperate is a strong incentive for cooperation, as well as for ISPs to self-police.

Within days (on April 8) of gaining those powers, the General Prosecutor’s division of St. Petersburg temporarily suspended the operations of ten Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operating in that city, although the exact sites for which they were being punished for hosting is unclear. Even the exact companies are unknown. The police stated that they closed the ISPs only very briefly, which looks more like they did it as a warning to ISPs across Russia that their operations could and would be damaged should they choose to host such sites.

Should ISPs not police themselves as well as the state would like, there is a back-up plan: Deputy General Director of the Russian general Prosecutor Alexei Zhafiarov also called for legislation mandating such involvement if self-policing is not instituted. According to his reasoning, it is not always possible to determine who posted extremist materials, but it is possible to determine who is hosting it, and as such they should be held responsible.

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