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To block or not to block Will Roskomnadzor actually restrict access to major sites like YouTube for ‘censoring’ Russian content?

Source: Meduza
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On November 19, a group of lawmakers introduced a draft law to the State Duma, which would allow the Russian authorities to block any website for removing “publicly significant information” (or for “restricting the rights of [Russian] citizens to freely seek, receive, transmit, produce, and distribute” such information). The law could affect both Russian and foreign sites — the draft law’s explanatory note mentioned the American Internet giants Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube specifically. According to the authors of the draft law, these websites have committed these types of violations in the past — for example, censoring Russian state media outlets like “Russia Today,” “RIA Novosti,” and “Krym 24.” Meduza answers key questions about the latest attempt to control content on the RuNet.

What kind of censorship is the law referring to? 

Social networking sites do in fact delete posts, close Russian accounts, or remove them from search results. This has happened relatively often in recent months:

  • On May 20, 2020, YouTube deleted the account of the regional state media channel Krym 24 (according to the channel’s administrators, it was deleted without any explanation or warning); now Krym 24’s content is available here
  • In September, Twitter removed the RIA Novosti’s account from its search results. Previously, it had removed RT and Sputnik. 
  • During the summer and fall, YouTube blocked the pro-government channels Anna-News and Tsarygrad, among others. 

Roskomnadzor (Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) deemed these blocks and restrictions “acts of censorship” and wrote to the companies that own these sites. On November 18, the watchdog agency sent a letter to Google demanding that its subsidiary YouTube lift restrictions on talk show host Vladimir Solovyov’s YouTube show “Solovyov LIVE” and “return it to the ‘Trending’ section” (Roskomnadzor maintained that it must have been removed for censorship reasons, since before it was trending “regularly”). 

At the same time, Roskomnadzor itself has a long history of regularly demanding that social networks and search engines remove content (or restrict search results) that doesn’t suit the Russian authorities: targeting anything from extremist content to political messages and videos. That said, as the agency acknowledges, “in some cases the requests don’t lead to results.”

Why do social networks remove content?

Google, which owns YouTube, reported that in the spring and summer a total of 90 Russian channels were blocked, along with more than 2,000 Chinese channels and 20 from Iran. The blocks were in connection with a campaign to fight fake news and hate speech, which mainly targeted false news about the coronavirus epidemic and about politics. 

Social networks aren’t just conducting these campaigns in countries that the U.S. sees as its enemies. For example, since the U.S. presidential election, Twitter has flagged Donald Trump’s tweets as untrustworthy repeatedly, particularly ones where he claims to have won the election and makes allegations about attempts to steal his votes. At the same time, many Western politicians really do believe that Russia is one of the main generators of fake news and are demanding that social networks fight “against the Russian threat” more actively.

In its complaint to Google, Roskomnadzor said that Solovyov’s channel hasn’t appeared in YouTube’s “Trending” section since October. Around the same time, an anonymous Telegram channel called “Solovyov OFF” started an initiative that involved members filing coordinated complaints against Sovolyov’s channel. The Telegram channel has about 13,000 subscribers and runs a chat where about 900 active users discuss their experiences and share detailed instructions on how to file complaints properly. Their goal is to get Sovolyov’s channel blocked completely. So far, “Solovyov OFF” participants have managed to get restrictions put on Solovyov’s videos: some of them have been flagged as “inappropriate” or “offensive to some audiences” and downgraded. 

However, some think that Solovyov’s channel isn’t at risk of getting blocked, moreover, he appears to enjoy certain privileges compared to other YouTubers. Journalists Michael Naki, Alexander Plyushev, and Oleg Kashin, each of whom have their own YouTube shows, note that other video bloggers have been blocked immediately over a single copyright infringement complaint. Naki himself was temporarily blocked at the request of the company Igra-TV for using clips from the program “Chto, Gde, Kogda?” (“What? Where? When?).

Solovyov has avoided this so far, though he, like many other video bloggers, uses clips from other people’s videos and live streams so he can comment on them on air. And this is in spite of the fact that dozens of complaints are being filed against his channel — Michael Naki and Oleg Kashin have personally filed complaints about copyright infringement after Solovyov used clips from their videos without any attribution.

What punishment will violators face?

The Attorney General’s Office, in consultation with the Foreign Affairs Ministry, will be in charge of determining what constitutes “publicly significant information” and confirming if a website has restricted access to it. The Attorney General’s Office will send its decisions to Roskomnadzor, which will then add the site’s owners to a list of “owners of information resources involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms,” and inform them that they’ve been blacklisted within 24 hours.

If the site’s owners don’t fix the violations within a certain time frame, Roskomnadzor may instruct telecommunications operators to fully or partially block access to the site. There may also be other response measures outlined in Russian legislation. One of the authors of the bill, lawmaker Anton Gorelkin, stated that violators could face fines of up to 3 million rubles (about $39,400). 

So will YouTube get blocked? 

Russia’s law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection” already lists a wide range of reasons that allow the Russian authorities to block any given site — and this list is updated constantly. Currently, a site scan be blocked for:

  • Copyright violations
  • Refusing to store the personal data of Russian users on servers located inside the country
  • Extremist information (and other information prohibited by law) and so on.

Telecommunications operators are required to have the necessary equipment for carrying out these kinds of blocks.

In conversation with Meduza, Irina Levova, strategic projects director at the Institute for Internet Research, explained that Roskomnadzor has long had the ability to block major social networks: for example, Twitter and Facebook have not complied with a 2015 law that requires Internet companies to store the personal data of Russian users on servers inside Russia.

“All these years, Roskomnadzor has threatened them with this block, but in reality it has been reluctant to take this step,” Levova says. She recalls that in recent years, many other laws have been adopted to regulate the Internet sphere, “which in practice are not applied.” For example, there’s a law that requires VPN services to restrict access to websites on Roskomnadzor’s blacklist, but it hasn’t worked.

If the current bill is adopted, Levova believes it will become another dormant norm. In her opinion, such a block “will inflict a reputational blow and cause outrage among citizens.” 

“All of these services are still very popular in Russia, YouTube accounts for 35 percent of all Internet traffic on the RuNet and now it’s simply impossible to imagine the Russian internet without it,” Levova says. 

Finally, blocking is technologically difficult, as shown by the story of Russia’s attempt to block the messaging platform Telegram. Google has a large number of Google Global Cache servers around the world, which are needed, for example, so that when a user watches a YouTube video the traffic comes from a server that is geographically closest to them, not from one on the other side of the world. All major telecommunications operators in Russia, such as MTS and Megafon, have installed these servers and there are many of them in neighboring countries. As such, it will be very difficult to block such a distributed content delivery system completely.

If this draft law is adopted, Levova doesn’t think its main goal will be to block sites directly. Rather, she anticipates it will be used as an argument in disputes about what content can and should be distributed, and what content should be considered harmful. 

Text by Dmitry Kuznets with additional reporting by Maria Kolomychenko and Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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