‘You get used to it’ The director of Wikipedia’s Russian-language version on why the site is unlikely to bend under pressure from the authorities
On July 20, Russia's federal censor, Roskomnadzor, announced that Russian search engines would now be required to inform users that Wikipedia stands in violation of Russia law. Its crime: refusing to delete articles that contain “fake news” about Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Roskomnadzor first ordered Wikipedia to delete five articles about the war in early April; when the site’s owners ignored the demand, Moscow’s Tagansky District Court fined them five million rubles (roughly $86,000). Meduza asked Wikimedia RU director Stanislav Kozlovsky for the lowdown on Russia’s attempt to censor the free encyclopedia.
Acting director of Wikimedia RU
The Russian government started putting pressure on Wikipedia back in 2012, when the “blacklist law” was passed. [In 2013,] Wikipedia was added to the registry of banned websites, where it remains.
For the last ten years, because of certain articles on Wikipedia, [the Russian government] has had the ability to block the site at any moment. For example, the article on suicide explains what suicide is and includes a list of methods. That would be enough [to get the site blocked]. In addition, Wikipedia uses the https [protocol], so it’s not possible to physically block an individual article; doing that would result in the entire site being blocked.
Roskomnadzor used to communicate with us regularly. They would call and we would explain that the article worrying them was fine and didn’t contain anything [illegal]. When the article “Smoking cannabis” was banned [in 2013], I went to Roskomnadzor, and we went through every consecutive sentence and showed them the links to the Federal Drug Control site. For the last few years, we haven’t heard from them at all. They send us notifications [of violations] and that’s it.
It’s not us who was fined [by Roskomnadzor for failing to delete the articles] — it’s the American organization. If the Wikimedia Foundation decides to pay, it will come out of their pocket. We’re not authorized to appear in court; only the Wikimedia Foundation can do that. However many [demands to delete articles] there have been, [the Wikimedia Foundation] hasn’t disputed a single one yet.
On July 20, Roskomnadzor published an article about the “fake news” [that it had “caught” Wikipedia posting] on its own site, but the notification they sent us actually cited the “law on ‘landing’ foreign IT companies" [which requires tech companies to be represented on Russian soil], because the Wikimedia Foundation doesn't have legal representation in Russia. It’s that law that allows them to require Russian search engines to put a warning label on Wikipedia. They can’t do that just because of content [that they don’t like]. The statement from Roskomnadzor’s press service is nothing but a fantasy from their press secretary, and I don’t think it’s going to have any effect on user demand [for Wikipedia].
Wikipedia has been under threat of getting blocked for 10 years, but now it’s become more plausible. Sometimes there’s a lull for a while, but another notification always comes eventually. Maybe it’s coming to an end, or maybe there will be another wave of threats. Maybe they’ll block us. When someone points a gun at you for ten years straight, you get used to it.
[If Wikipedia gets blocked,] users will have to use a VPN. We’ll still have our mobile app, and it will probably continue to work. There are a million different mirror sites. There’s no doubt people will continue reading it, but they’ll stop editing it — because they’ll be afraid, because not everyone uses a VPN, and because most VPN IP addresses are banned by Wikipedia to prevent vandalism. That will have a negative impact on the number of new articles.
Wikipedia doesn’t have a formal editorial policy. There are only the overall rules and principles it’s based on. All of the material is supposed to be written in the style of an encyclopedia article — from a neutral point of view — and every fact is supposed to be accompanied by a link to an independent reliable source. Those rules aren’t going to change, no matter what happens in the world. All of Wikipedia’s authors are allowed to write about whatever topics they want.
As far as the multiple news outlets that have closed (Editor’s note: a number of Russian media outlets have been blocked, shut down, or stopped writing about the war in Ukraine since February 24), that’s a real shame. Some of them are accessible through VPNs, but others, unfortunately, aren’t. A lot of facts [on Wikipedia] were cited using sources that are now blocked. For example, the Ekho Moskvy site — we’re lucky it was indexed by a web archive, because that allowed bots to adjust all of the links. But in general, we rarely rely on news sources. We mostly cite academic articles, but it depends on the topic. We believe that the more independent authoritative sources there are, the better.
Articles about Ukraine [on Wikipedia] are currently being written by people from both Russia and Ukraine — and they have different views on the issue. They argue about every sentence, but they ultimately word things in ways that keep the articles as neutral as possible. Wikipedia is full of those kinds of disputes, and all of the tools for resolving them were created long ago.
[Sure,] there are people who edit individual phrases in articles [about the war]. Do they have connections to the [Russian] government? Probably not. Every edit has to be accompanied by a link to an independent source that’s unaffiliated with either of the two sides.
We’re not opposed to the creation of a Russian equivalent to Wikipedia, as the general director of the Znanie [“Knowledge”] Society [Maxim Dreval] promised Putin [in early May]. The more encyclopedias and the more knowledge there is in the world, the better. That’s the point of the entire Wikimedia movement. As far as I’m aware, they [the Znanie Society] don’t have any text content, but they do have a lot of lectures and video content. There’s also the Great Russian Encyclopedia, which gives them almost a century of experience to draw from.
They decided to create an analogue to Wikipedia, spent two billion rubles (about $34.4 million) on a Znanie website, and when it was time to launch it, they had around 5,000 articles. [The original] Wikipedia has about 1.83 million Russian language articles. Wikipedia get five thousand new [Russian] articles about every three weeks — and for free. The Znanie Society is just a lecture organization. And let them do lectures, for God’s sake — good luck to them.
I think the pressure on us right now is just another charade from Roskomnadzor. I also think Wikipedia provides more value to Russia than the Science Ministry, the Education Ministry, and the Culture Ministry put together.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale