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This is how Russian Internet censorship works A journey into the belly of the beast that is the Kremlin's media watchdog

Meduza
17:08, 13 august 2015

Photo: Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant

Earlier this week, for a whirlwind 24 hours, a page on one of the most popular websites in the world, Reddit, was technically banned in Russia. While it was only a part of the website, roughly a third of Russian Internet providers lack the tools necessary to block specific content within a site built on the https protocol, meaning Reddit would become inaccessible to several million Internet users. Authorities from Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin's media watchdog agency, removed the Reddit link from its Internet blacklist a day after adding it, saying the site's administrators finally agreed to block the banned content from readers in Russia. What does it mean that Russia is willing to ban one of the Internet's most popular destinations? Will Moscow try it again? Meduza Special Correspondent Daniil Turovsky examines how Russia’s biggest censorship agency works.

The court

In February 2015, a Moscow court reviewed a case called “Navalny versus Roskomnadzor.” On January 13, Navalny's blog was blocked for three days. In court, he faced officials from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications (responsible for overseeing online and media content). Its representatives stated that his blog was blocked due to the Attorney General’s order to close down all websites calling for an unsanctioned protest to take place on January 15, when Russia’s opposition had planned to take to the streets in protest against a trial involving Alexey Navalny, his brother Oleg, and the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. But the court commenced two weeks ahead of time, on December 30, 2014, and announced a 3.5-year suspended sentence for Alexey Navalny and a 3.5-year prison sentence for his brother. That evening, an ad hoc protest rally took place in central Moscow, immediately after the sentence was announced, and the January rally was cancelled.

The Navalny blog post with which Roskomnadzor took issue had called for a cancellation of the January rally and for “preparations for a larger event” later. Roskomnadzor officials said the Attorney General’s office had ruled to block any websites pertaining to unsanctioned rallies.

At the court hearing on February 12, Navalny stated that “Roskomnadzor is a dubious and useless organization that aims to instate political censorship. Why did they block the post if it referred to an entirely different event?” (this quote is reconstructed from live tweets by Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who was present at the hearing).

“The words ‘protest rally’ were in the post,” said a Roskomnadzor official.

“And what if I say ‘protest rally on the moon?’ Are the words ‘protest rally’ banned?” asked Navalny.

“‘Protest rally’ has something negative about it, probably in the word ‘protest.’ We have acted on behalf of orders from the Attorney General’s Office. If we do not respond [to the blog post], this can have negative consequences for us, we could get a warning. Roskomnadzor isn’t some kind of empire of evil,” said the official.

On February 18, the court rendered its decision: it sided with Roskomnadzor and determined that Navalny’s blog could be blocked.

That day, senior Roskomnadzor official Evgeny Zaitsev was present in the courtroom for the hearing. He had been the one to put Navalny’s blog on Russia’s Internet blacklist. But the judge never questioned him.

Zaitsev had blocked Navalny’s blog before. The opposition activist’s LiveJournal page is not accessible from Russia since March 2014. Access to the blog was closed down due to Navalny’s calls for rallies in support of defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case, a probe into violent rioting that allegedly took place on May 6, 2012, at an opposition protest in Moscow. Leaks revealed by the hacker collective “Anonymous International” (read Meduza's special report on this group) indicate that Zaitsev, before answering Navalny's lawyers in court, consulted with Timur Prokopenko, an official in the Kremlin.

After the court proceedings, I found Zaitsev smoking outside. “I’m a state employee, we don’t talk, we’re not allowed,” he said when I tried to ask him questions.

The registry

Roskomnadzor occupies the top four floors of a grey eight-story building surrounded by blue spruce trees, located in Moscow’s central Kitay Gorod neighborhood. Below them are the Ministry of Culture offices. The Presidential Administration is a five-minute walk away.

Before 2012, few people were interested in the activities of this state agency. Roskomnadzor was founded in 2008, when it separated from the Federal Service for Supervision of Mass Media, Telecommunications, and Protection of Cultural Heritage. It took over the oversight of all media and communications, including the allocation of radio waves, the construction of communication links, and the issuing of warnings to media sources that violate laws (three warnings can result in closure).

Roskomnadzor's central office in Moscow.
Photo: Sergey Kiselev / Kommersant

From its very beginnings, Roskomnadzor would occasionally come out with statements that have now become an unfortunate routine: in 2009, they notified a history channel that the facts of World War II were distorted in one of their programs, and in 2011 they announced that a bot would carry out the task of identifying extremist statements online.

Roskomnadzor first came under the media spotlight in 2009, when the head of the agency warned media sources that they were responsible for what is posted by readers in the “comments” or “forum” sections of their websites. The official stated, “if the editorial board doesn’t want any trouble with the regulatory authorities, they have to moderate their forums.” If “extremist” comments posted by any reader are found on a media website, this could result in a warning from Roskomnadzor. Some websites closed their forums, while others hired special moderators to monitor their “comments” sections. This situation revealed some of what was to come in Russian Internet regulation. But it was only the beginning.

“Until 2012, no one needed this agency, which was mostly responsible for small stuff like radio waves,” claims David Homak, who established a popular satirical encyclopedia called Lurkmore, which had 34 of its pages blocked in 2013 alone. (He has since "frozen" the website.) “They were simple guys who weren’t ruined by money. Just sad dumbf**ks in grey suits who would come to work to put their signatures on some papers. Like the guys over at the state sewage treatment plant. Then they suddenly got famous. They became stars. Before, they’d barely get a glimpse at someone like [Echo of Moscow radio station chief Alexey] Venediktov, and now they can kick in [his] door.”

Real fame came to Roskomnadzor officials in 2012, when amendments to the law on “protecting minors from information that may harm their heath and development” were passed. The amendments are also known as “the blacklist law” or “the law on Internet censorship.” The main change the amendments brought was the introduction of a list of websites featuring “forbidden information.” The category “forbidden information” is defined by groups of experts from regulatory authorities such the Federal Drug Control Service or the State Agency for Health and Consumer Rights, and includes child pornography, information on illicit drugs, and instructions on how to commit suicide. The list was created for communications providers, who are supposed to block their clients from accessing blacklisted web pages. One of the people behind the amendments was parliament member Elena Mizulina, who is also known for her laws against “gay propaganda.”

It was expected that the Ministry of Internal Affairs would oversee the list, but Internal Affairs officials did not want to “do such dirty work,” says Artem Kozlyuk, an activist of the website Rublacklist.net, which monitors Roskomnadzor’s activities and propagates freedom of speech and information. Vadim Ampelonskiy, an aide to the head of Roskomnadzor, explained that “it was necessary to appoint a center that would simultaneously work with Internet companies and communications operators. Roskomnadzor was chosen as the agency to carry out these tasks.”

In the summer of 2012, a few days before the Russian parliament was due to vote on the blacklist amendments, Wikipedia, LiveJournal, social network VKontakte, and Russian search engine Yandex participated in the biggest strike in the history of the Russian Internet. Wikipedia placed a banner on its website saying, “Imagine a world without free knowledge. Today the Russian parliament is discussing a law that could lead to the creation of extrajudicial censorship of the Internet”; LiveJournal posted an editorial note in support of “the freedom of information”; Vkontakte, which is the top social network in Russian-speaking countries, displayed a link to the Wikipedia banner; and Yandex, Russia’s main search engine, joined the protest by crossing out the word “everything” from its slogan (“You can find everything").

Despite the protest from Internet giants, the amendments were approved by the parliament, then the President, and put into action later that year.

Crowdsourcing censorship

The first version of “the blacklist law” was put together by the Internet Safety League, an organization established in 2011 by businessman Konstantin Malofeev, who was at the time the biggest minority shareholder of Rostelekom, Russia’s major national telecommunications company (he held 10 percent of the company). Malofeev said that “a very famous Orthodox Christian figure” inspired him to start thinking about “regulating the Internet.” Malofeev said “he just came to me and presented me with this problem.”

The biggest telecommunications companies in Russia joined the Internet Safety League, including Rostelekom, MTS, Beeline, and Megafon. Igor Shchegolev, then head of the Ministry of Telecommunications, became the head of the League’s advisory board. Activists who participated in the activities of the League would track down banned information online, focusing most of their efforts on child pornography. The volunteers would either independently contact Internet service providers and ask them to take down the content, or they would notify police about the content. The Internet Safety League also created “a child pornography database,” which eventually made it into the “Deep Web,” where one could buy it for 20 Bitcoins (about $5,000 today). The League continued to focus on child pornography from 2013 to 2015, finding 37,000 websites to ban.

* * *

Today, the biggest number of complaints filed with the government comes from activists in an organization called Media Guard (Mediagvardiya), a pro-Kremlin youth group.

In this scheme of “crowdsourced censorship,” the activists publish motivational pictures and reports on their activities in an official group on VKontakte. The page features many homophobic statements and caricatures of Austrian pop singer Conchita Wurst, who won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest dressed in drag, as a female character with a beard.

The activists of Media Guard have been working hard to close the Vkontakte group “Children-404,” an online support group for homosexual teenagers where they share their experiences and get help from volunteer psychologists.

Media Guard's chief, Ilya Podsevatkin.
Photo: Media Guard vk.com page

The “Media guards” do not focus exclusively on homosexuals. They also search of any online mentions of the Right Sector, a Ukrainian right-wing organization which is banned in Russia. They also try to find “extremist signals” in opposition groups. They also monitor information pertaining to drugs and suicide. And in mid-February 2015, one of the leading activists suggested to ban websites which permit Russians to buy “sanctioned products” which are no longer available in Russia following a deterioration of relations with the US and the EU.

The Media Guard also holds contests among volunteers. For example, those who gather the largest number of links to websites mentioning the Right Sector can win a work of art from the patriotic political caricature exhibition “No Filter” (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/anzhelika_mel/1429000-echo/). Artem Kozlyuk from Rublacklist.net says that the “Media guards” compete with each other for the number of websites they report, filing thousands of complaints with the government agency. Their website (http://mediagvardia.ru/) boasts 18,787 web pages found, 2475 web pages closed. The website also features a hall of fame of the top-10 activists, ranked by the number of pages they managed to close.

The leader of the group Media Guard declined to comment. The press office of the organization said of the activists that “they do not want to speak with you, and they won’t.”

* * *

Similar methods of finding “forbidden information” are used in Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Evgeny Morozov, author of the book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, writes that in 2009 the government in Thailand set up a special website urging people to report any sites that criticize the king. As a result, the government of Thailand blocked 5,000 websites within 24 hours. In Saudi Arabia, citizens also report of “offensive” webpages voluntarily; a special communications commission gets up to 1,200 complaints a day.

Everything you need to know about how the Russian authorities block websites

What sorts of websites get blocked?

There are three types of banned material: child pornography (and any advertisements appealing to minors to participate in the filming child pornography), instructions on preparation of illicit drugs (including information on how to grow marijuana), and the propaganda of suicide and descriptions of suicide methods. Roskomnadzor also blocks websites featuring extremist content and content infringing upon copyright laws.

How does Roskomnadzor know where to find forbidden content?

Roskomnadzor gets its information from three sources: courts, regular citizens, and experts among the state regulatory authorities. Courts can block any website if it is ruled that its content violates the law, and Roskomnadzor must carry out the ban. Citizens can file complaints regarding illegal content on the state Single Registry. The most active informants are members of the organization Media Guard. Complaints are evaluated by the relevant state authorities (for example, if the content relates to drugs, the complaint goes to the Federal Drug Control Service). These authorities also monitor the Internet themselves and have hired special experts whose job it is to hunt down prohibited content online. Based on the complaints and expert evaluations, the relevant authorities submit an official report to Roskomnadzor through a system called the Unified System of Electronic Cooperation Between State Agencies. Each website in question gets its own separate report. Then Roskomnadzor reviews the reports. Roskomnadzor is also separately responsible its own area of expertise, which is child pornography.

So do the authorities watch child pornography, or what?

Yes. According to Alexander Zharov, the head of the agency, this quite unpleasant. After a week of this kind of work, experts are sent to rehab.

And then they block the website?

No. Roskomnadzor sends a notification to the Internet service provider that hosts the website, which then has to notify the owners of the website of the problem within three days. Sometimes Roskomnadzor contacts the website's administrators directly. The administrators have to remove the prohibited content within three days of the notification. If the content is deemed “extremist,” the rules are more strict and the site is blocked without prior notice.

How does the content get deleted if the administrators don’t remove it themselves?

If the website administrators do not remove the content after being notified, or if Roskomnadzor fails to reach them, Roskomnadzor authorities enter it into their “out-load” list, which is a special database of prohibited websites. Network operators are supposed to download this database two times a day, at 9 a.m. and at 9 p.m. Then the operators have to block the “out-load” webpages, so that their clients can’t access them. If someone tries to access a blocked website, they just see a page showing a notification that the website was blocked. It usually says, “We are sorry for the inconvenience, but access to the requested page has been limited by the state authorities.”

Does Roskomnadzor make sure the network operators block the “out-load” websites?

Yes. Roskomnadzor has the technical capabilities to check if a network operator has downloaded the database of prohibited pages. At the moment, authorities have to check manually if a website has been blocked by the operator, but according to Meduza’s sources, Roskomnadzor is already testing a program that will simplify the process. The program will allow authorities to track not only whether an operator blocked a website, but also whether the operator has blocked all ancillary content, like instructions on how to bypass website bans. According to Roskomnadzor, 2.5 percent of network operators currently fail to block prohibited content. There is an administrative fine for network operators that fail to comply with the bans.

Roskomnadzor's head, Alexander Zharov.
Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

But a lot of network operators currently don’t even have the technical means to block specific pages. If a website made it into the “outload” database, the operators would block the IP-address of the source, thus also banning content that wasn’t prohibited in the first place. Rublacklist.net activists suppose that more than 100,000 pages have been blocked accidentally. In 2014, the Constitutional Court of Russia ruled that the state, as represented by Roskomnadzor, must take responsibility for such mistakes.

Why are “extremist” web pages blocked more strictly than others?

The law allows websites that display extremist content to be blocked as quickly as possible. This category includes pages that call for unsanctioned protests.

Is it possible to unblock a website?

Yes. If the administrator removes the illicit content and Roskomnadzor experts can verify this, the page should be unblocked.

Who has suffered from Roskomnadzor’s crusade?

Between November 2012 and March 2015, Roskomnadzor blocked 52,000 webpages: 37,000 featured information about illicit drugs, 7,700 displayed child pornography, and 5,500 pages had information propagating acts of suicide.

Websites that were blocked briefly at various times include sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, LiveJournal, Twitter, Youtube, Vimeo, and Vkontakte.

Wikipedia, for example, has been listed in Roskomnadzor’s records since 2012, but has not been added to the “out-load” list, which would be the final step in banning the encyclopedia for Russian users. Youtube and Vimeo were once blocked for several hours in Russia. Facebook has also made it into Roskomnadzor’s records, but has never been “out-loaded.”

Websites built on the “https” protocol have suffered. Network operators often cannot decode this type of traffic, and it is easier to block access to an entire website running https, than a specific page on the site's domain.

Some of Roskomnadzor's main victims include independent news outlet Grani.ru and satirical encyclopedia Lurkmore. The former received three warnings from Roskomnadzor for reporting on unsanctioned protests and reposting religious caricatures from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Lurkmore suffered from its “https” use, and its pages on drugs and suicide have been banned. The site's creator later "frozen" the project entirely.

Roskomnadzor also blocked pages with calls for protest rallies on two occasions. Once, in 2014, not-entirely-serious pages on Facebook, LiveJournal, and Vkontakte were banned for promoting a march “for the federalization of Siberia.” Fourteen websites that reported on the march were also warned for displaying “extremist” sympathy on their sites, including BBC Russian and the state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

The second occasion involved opposition activist Alexey Navalny, when tens of thousands of his supporters joined a Facebook event calling for a rally protesting a fraud case against him and his brother. The event page was blocked upon orders from the Attorney General’s Office, but a new page emerged right away. Facebook refused to block the second page, which technically gave Roskomnadzor the right to block Facebook in Russia entirely. (This did not happen.) Twitter and Vkontakte also got notifications from Roskomnadzor asking them to remove pages calling for the opposition rally.

Over the past couple of years, Roskomnadzor has been paying more and more attention to news media. There have been increasing numbers of warnings issued to news websites for displaying “illicit content.” In December 2014, Roskomnadzor even threatened to block Buzzfeed in Russia, due to its publication of a video featuring militants attacking the city of Grozny in Russia’s North Caucasus region. The video was taken down.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Roskomnadzor issued reminders to the Russian media about the need to abide by “moral norms,” and issued a warning to the Russian newspaper RBC for publishing Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

On February 13, 2015, Roskomnadzor advised journalists to label Ukrainian organizations and political groups such as the Right Sector as “extremist” and “radical” in articles that mention them. Failing to label the organizations in this way could result in a warning, the notice said. The next day, however, this recommendation was revoked.

Who controls Roskomnadzor?

Alexander Zharov became the head of Roskomnadzor in May 2012, one year before Russia's Internet blacklist was created. He gives a lot of interviews, talking about his love for art house films and blues-rock and folk music. He attends many conferences on media ad communications, but does not use social networks himself. Unlike his deputy Maxim Ksenzov, Zharov avoids public online discussions with the administrators of blocked web pages.

According to one of Meduza's sources, Zharov is in reality just a figurehead without any real power. The source says decision-making is in the hands of deputy head Maxim Ksenzov and officials in the Kremlin.

Roskomnadzor's deputy chief, Maxim Kzenzov.
Photo: Pavel Bednyakov / TASS

“Ksenzov isn’t stronger within the agency or outside of it, he’s just more of a public figure,” argues another source, taking the opposite stance. Last year, Ksenzov told the newspaper Izvestiya that the Russian government could block Twitter or Facebook in a matter of hours. In response, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said publicly that some officials should “sometimes turn on their brains and not give interviews announcing the threat of closing down social networks.” Ksenzov was reproached by his boss Zharov and is no longer permitted to give interviews.

“[Roskomnadzor] is a near-military organization with Zharov at the head,” says one of my sources. This comparison bears some weight: one of the experts at the agency told me there are many former military personnel working there. Among these men are two of Zharov’s deputies.

Officials from the Presidential Administration say that Alexander Zharov answers to one person only: the head of state. Sources close to Roskomnadzor told me that the agency's officials go directly to the Kremlin to discuss new initiatives. “And all political decisions are coordinated [with the Presidential Administration],” says my source. “They are thinking about what to do with Twitter, which isn’t cooperating very well. Any decision [about blocking Twitter] can be made only at the top… If this decision is made, it will be dictated to Roskomnadzor through the Attorney General’s Office.”

New regulations

According to leaks from the hacker collective Anonymous International, an official working at the Presidential Administration got an email on April 22, 2014, from pro-Kremlin political scientist Dmitry Badovsky, who wrote that “the Internet is still officially controlled by the United States” and suggested passing a law that would require foreign Internet companies to use databases and servers physically located in Russia.

Two months later, a law was passed obliging all services that deal with the data of Russian nationals to use servers located in Russia. A new blacklist of websites that fail to observe the new terms will be created.

“Those [websites] that do not transfer the data [to Russian servers] will be blocked,” explains Rublacklist.net's Kozlyuk. “If Facebook decides that it would be ineffective to do this, it will be closed in Russia… And then what? This is a repressive law. First it will affect businesses, and then users will realize that the services they used to have are now blocked.” Vadim Ampelonskiy, an aide to the head of Roskomnadzor, maintains that “websites that find the Russian market important won’t find it very difficult to transfer [their data storage].”

Roskomnadzor's search engine

Ampelonskiy and I sit at a café in the center of Moscow, not far from the Roskomnadzor building. Almost everyone else at the café is a government employee.

“We are working on an automatic system that will search for prohibited content, and it will be launched later this year,” he tells me. “This will be a search engine with a built-in thesaurus for words and images. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for videos, yet. This system will monitor online content to identify extremism and hate speech. I don’t know what words will be used in the search yet, but it’s quite obvious that you can work out a thesaurus for any issue, and that thesaurus will most likely find the relevant content.”

Vadim Ampelonskiy, an aide to the head of Roskomnadzor.
Photo: Anatoly Zhdanov / Komsomolskaya Pravda / PhotoXPress

“But will a person run the system?” I ask.

“Yes, there will be an operator. If the system finds content, the operator will have to analyze it.”

“Then it’s more of a half-automated system. I mean, if you used an automated one, the entire Internet could be blocked,” I argue.

“Of course. Our goal isn’t to block the entire Internet. The system will just make the search automatic. People won’t have to sit there and search, the system will do it instead.”

* * *

“Russia had an unbelievably free Internet,” Lurkmore creator David Homak told me. In 2014, he left Russia (just in case), and now lives in Israel. “It was impossible to imagine that, in just two years, it would become so heavily regulated…. Did we think just recently that someone could come search our premises because of some encyclopedia entry about the capital of the [Russian] Republic of Adygea? Or because of an entry about Molotov cocktails? The investigator calls and says, ‘This propagates violence.’ I tell him, ‘But all TV channels are full of instructions on how to make these [Molotov cocktails] 24/7.’ He tells me, ‘Yeah but there have been complaints and now you have to write some kind of note about it.’ The institution of voluntary whistleblowing is really blossoming…. People are really loving this fight against extremism.”

Andrey Manoilo, a member of the Russian Security Council, told the newspaper Kommersant that “the murder of Boris Nemtsov right before a planned mass rally might have triggered the formation of an aggressive, easily maniuplated political crowd.” Manoilo believes that the situation calls for “a complex approach” that could include the prevention of online forms of protest activity. 

The job, in all likelihood, would fall to Roskomnadzor.

Daniil Turovsky

Moscow