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Russia Uses 'Single Register' Law To Selectively Block Internet Content

 

“Won't somebody please think of the children?” seems to be Russia's refrain when it comes to their recent inception of internet censorship laws. It appears that Russian authorities are chiefly concerned about the promotion of self-harm and suicide via images and videos, along with child pornography and drug use, according to supporters of the law that went into effect in November 2012 called the 'Single Register'. Critics, however, claim that it's a ploy to censor many more types of content, allowing the government to block opposition websites and [giving them] the perfect tool to include on the blacklist all sites they choose, like those from political extremists. 
 
The Register was essentially created  to make the process of censorship an easier one for the government: previously, regional prosecutors required service providers to block access to sites that were considered potentially harmful or offensive and so should be banned; however, due to unsystematic application, these sites were banned in some regions but still available in others. The Register will mean that the sites are banned throughout the country.
 
A specific agency, the Roskomnadzor (the Agency for the Supervision of Information Technology, Communications and Mass Media), will hold the responsibility for banning sites, but will also consider specific content submitted by the Interior Ministry, the Federal Antidrug Agency and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare. It also has the power to update the law when it sees fit, and to order host providers to block nominated URLs.
 
Theories about the reasoning behind this law include the idea that the move shows a lack of confidence and direction within the Kremlin, especially when considered alongside the other surveillance measures taken in 2012 (including some that restrict civic freedom and foreign influence). Jeffrey Mankoff of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said in an interview with the Voice of America that this regulating of censorship is part of an attempt to repair any weaknesses in their political armour, and pointing out that "Putin's in power for at least another six years, but what he wants to do over the course of those six years seems completely undefined."
 
The fears of the critics of the Register seem to be becoming a reality, as the law has been used more recently to ban material from social network sites, which are a common thorn in the side of a government that wishes to quell any potential activism. The New York Times reported that “opposition leaders have railed against the law as a crack in the doorway to broader Internet censorship [and are concerned that] social networks, which have been used to arrange protests against President Vladimir V. Putin, will be stifled.”
 
It began a few months ago with YouTube initially agreeing to block a video that demonstrated how to create a realistic-looking fake wound using makeup and a razor blade, on the premise that it promoted suicide. In February, however, the site filed a lawsuit in Russian court alleging that the video was for entertainment and recreational purposes only.
 
YouTube is the only company to reject the requests for removal; Facebook took down a page called 'Club Suicid' (a suicide-themed user group) on March 29 after the Roskomnadzor gave them until March 31 to do so, but Facebook claimed that they did so because the page violated their terms of use and was not directly related to the Register. Facebook’s statement clarified that a number of countries have issues that they react to:“Notable examples of where most services, including ours, will I.P.-restrict access for certain counties are in Germany” and in France, where it blocks content related to Holocaust denial, and in Turkey, where content defaming the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is blocked. 
 
Similarly, in March, Twitter also complied with requests to remove posts, and by March 15 had already blocked content in five different cases (three items of “propaganda of suicidal sentiments” and two for providing information on illegal drugs). The Roskomnadzor have been pleased that Twitter is “actively engaged in cooperation:” The Russian newspaper Isvestia reported that since November last year, Twitter and governmental agencies had been creating a mechanism for blocking posts inside the country.   
 
Not everyone who criticizes the law is worried that it will lead to political censorship, however: up until now, no political content has been censored, only material posted by Russian-speaking users within the initial remit of suicide and illegal behaviour. Anton Nosik, a Russian blogger and journalist, has called the law “absurd, harmful and absolutely unnecessary,” but is not worried about a crackdown on videos and web pages on the Russian blogosphere, saying that “The track record of the authorities shows they are not going to enforce it strictly.”

 

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