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Russia’s Internet community fears possible censorship of the net

July 11, 2012, 18:06 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Willingness to protect children against hazardous information will not attain the desired objectives if protection is effectuated in the manner specified in a new law that introduces the blacklists of websites and filtration of improper content in the Russian segment of the Internet. On the contrary, it will bring about the imposition of full-scale censorship on free speech in the web, the largest Internet companies and human rights activists say.

The authorities, in their turn, claim the law does not mean anything more than a wish to defend children from harmful information and does not imply any restrictions on free speech.

Amendments to the Law on Protecting Children from the Information that Harms their Health and Development and to separate other legislative acts were endorsed by the State Duma in the second the third /conclusive/ readings Wednesday. The revised legislative item envisions the drafting of a register /or blacklist/ of websites containing the information highly undesirable for children, for instance, child porn, promos of drug addiction and the propaganda of suicide.

The register will be kept by an agency authorized by the Russian government, which will also spell out the criteria for its operations. Internet host companies and operators will be obliged to block access to the sites entered in the register.

In all other cases, court rulings will be needed to add one or another site to the register. Site owners will have the right to petition against the decisions to include their sites in the register.

Also, as soon as a site is entered in the register, the provider will have a duty to demand that the owner clear the floor. If the provider does not take brisk enough actions, the communication lines operator will have a duty to restrict access to the site in question.

The law may take effect as early as November 1.

Prior to the second reading of the bill, the MPs made a number of amendments that make its provisions less stringent for the Internet companies. For instance, they exempted the postulation about ‘hazardous information’ / since virtually any information might be classified this way/ and spelt out in more detail the characteristics of the content, the uploading of which may lead up to a court resolution to close a website down. In line with the bill, a site can be shut without a court ruling if it carries porn featuring children and adolescents, advertises drugs /or drug-containing plants/ or the information on methods and/or techniques of committing suicide.

Duma’s motion to mitigate provisions of the bill came as a reaction to an outburst of indignation, which the emergence of the bill produced among the leading Internet companies, like Yandex, Group, Google, and human rights groups.

Last week, the bill came under a fire of criticism at the Presidential Council for Development of Civic Society. Its experts said that the procedure of blocking the domain names and IP addresses /rather than the surgical blocking of the URL/ may bring about an amassed shutting down of resources that do not contain any outlawed content but are located under the domain names and network addresses entered in the register, the Council members claimed.

The Russian-language segment of Wikipedia was out of action throughout Tuesday as a demonstration of protest. “This document may deal a fatal blow to the free and open Internet. In order to raise concern over the issue we switch Wikipedia off for 24 hours,” said a statement on the situation issued by Stanislav Kozlovsky, the executive director of a company that owns Wikipedia’s Russian version.

Kozlovsky said in this connection that the operations of an entire resource like the Live Journal may be blocked in full if the moderators forget to remove on time a single commentary deemed to be undesirable.

On the face of it, the novel restrictions will not have any major effect on the real porn business, since the vast majority of porn sites have foreign hosting.

Kozlovsky says that, along with this, the information encroaching on the new law may be uploaded quite purposefully by way of a provocation.

“There was an instance where an American highly displeased with Wikipedia informed the FBI that the portal contained too much child pornography,” Kozlovsky said. “They found some 17th century pictures that contained nude angels in each corner. Were children pictured there? Yes, they were. And were they naked? Naturally there were. Well here we are, that’s a piece of child pornography.”

Executives of the company running Yandex, Russia’s biggest search engine, also feel confident that the newly adopted law sets the scene for abuses of every description. July 11, visitors to the site would see a change in the company’s logotype that usually says ‘Yandex: Just Everything will be Found’.

They word ‘everything’ was crossed out and a click at the logotype would retrieve a statement by Yandex’s editor-in-chief Yelena Kolmanovskaya that said: “We find it important to observe a balance of public interests and to take due account of technological peculiarities of the Internet. That is why we think the discussion of the bill /in parliament/ should be put off.”

Kolmanovskaya believes that the document should first be examined at open public debates by Internet industry executives and technical experts.

Executives of the Russian division of Google share these apprehensions.

“While we fully support the main objective of the lawmakers, which is to protect children against the improper Internet content, we think the illegal and dangerous content will be the last thing the methods they propose will do damage to,” said Marina Zhunich, the director for liaisons with the agencies of state power at Google Russia.

“The thing is that porn industry outlets regularly change the IP addresses of their servers and the domain names,” she said. “Such alterations are part and parcel of the business strategy of these resources and a method of getting away from justice.”

The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters has sent a request to Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin to put off the effectuation of the new law, the association’s President Eduard Sagalayev told the Echo of Moscow radio. He believes that new law needs refining.

In the meantime, the pro-Kremlin forces in the Duma say the law does not go beyond the stated willingness to protect children from harmful information. “The authors of this law did pursue the goal of defending kids from the information endangering the life and health of young generations,” a source close to the leadership of the United Russia party told the news portal. “Putting this law into legal effect at an earliest possible date is really crucial.”

Moscow, July 11