Safer internet forum - more of a show than discussion
As I've mentioned, February 7th has the Safer Internet Day - some countries decided to make a whole week out. A bill which would force venue owners prevent kids from accessing nasty places on the internet through their Wi-Fi, I’ve already mentioned last Friday. Let’s see what else happened last week.
Here in Russia, the League for Internet Safety once again organized Safer Internet Forum, a discussion dedicated to issues of online safety and regulation. This is the organization largely responsible for the law on internet blacklists and recently went a step further, proposing the idea of "white lists". Needless to say, the forum was somewhat one-sided - internet regulation, even in its current form, which does not cease stirring controversy, is seen as a logical development of the cyberspace and those opposing are, well, they simply don't see the big picture. Alright then, here's a brief overview of the blacklist law. The initiative became public in December of 2011 when the draft was apparently leaked to the public. Since it wasn't really official, no dates were set and it was generally very vague, everyone seemed to forget about it soon enough. Much to everyone's surprise, half a year later this crystallized into a bill, which was fast-tracked in the lower house of parliament despite it being pretty much just as vague. Vocal opposition in the form of active internet users and web giants such as Google and Wikipedia did not seem to have any effect - lawmakers had promised that by the time the law came into force all the kinks would be ironed out and no vagueness will remain. A small victory was won - the extensive list of prohibited subjects was limited to child exploitation and drug and suicide advocacy. Come November 1st, no one was really prepared. The website, zapret-info.gov.ru, which crowdsourced efforts on seeking and destroying illegal web pages and allowed checking whether a destination was blacklisted, went down immediately after launch - either too many users wanted to check it out or opponents organized a denial of service attack. Despite best efforts of all those involved, vagueness remains inherent. Throughout the last three months absolutely innocent web pages became blacklisted due to them sharing IP addresses with 'bad' pages; suicide and drug use advocacy is so non-specific that the blacklist now includes an FAQ on drug use and manufacturing in a computer game and even a PSA warning of dangers of trains. Yes, the viral hit 'Dumb Ways to Die' is apparently not straightforward enough and kids may actually decide to try and follow some of these instructions of how to take their own lives. An yet another major site was recently added to the blacklist. The blog platform lj.rossia.org will soon be blocked by Russian internet providers, unless its administration chooses to follow the requests sent by Roskomnadzor. The blog host is basically a mirror image of LiveJournal – it offers the same services and even uses the same software. However, it was created a few years ago by people unhappy with LiveJournal’s terms of service, deeming them too oppressive. Thus, lj was established to cultivate a liberal, if not libertarian approach to hosting. For instance, unlike LiveJournal, lj doesn’t have a button “report user” – basically, there is no way to anonymous complain about someone. Yet still, the blog host managed to mostly stay away from trouble and illegal media. In January, the administration shut down one of its users, allegedly for spamming and using the blog for commercial purposes – according to cached versions of the blog, it was basically a commercial for some sort of a synthetic drug. Coincidentally, this lead to Roskomnadzor adding the website to the blacklist – only after it was already removed by the administration. This incident ironically illustrated efficiency with which Roskomnadzor operates. Anywany, now one of the bloggers hosted by lj has been accused of not one, but two infractions – two posts which, according to the record in the blacklist registry, have elements of child pornography – that’s textual pornography, by the way. February 10th one of the administrators, or, shall we say, board members, clarified the situation.
Turns out that according to the rules of the service, a vote by the board, consisting of seven members, is required in order to decide whether to ban a user or not. Since the administration has not received any sort of notice before the whole blog platform was publicly blacklisted, there simply was no time for a vote. Actually, this sort of practice seems normal – another somewhat underground yet popular website, Lurkmore, found itself in a similar situation a couple of months ago. Anyway, these two article are now blocked. However, the whole account, which has a lot of other controversial posts, is not. Turns out that this is a chapter by chapter translation of a book called "How to practice child love", authored by someone called The Mule. It is what it sounds like – but it’s largely considered to be a piece of satire, or, trolling if you will, sole purpose of which is to infuriate firebrand pedophile hunters. And this book does a very good job of it, since it’s readily available all across the internet – that includes Russia. Interesting note – there were other complaints filed against lj.rossia.org and this particular blog. Here’s one reply from Roskomnadzor: “Unoforunately, according to the current legislation of the Russian Federation, [anti child pornography legislation] entails initiating prosecution only regarding images with child pornography or recruitment of children as actors in pornographic shows, spread through the internet” unquote. The reply goes then promises to look further into the situation, informing that the Prosecution and Ministry of Interior have been made aware of the blog. So, in plain English – pedophilia, sarcastic or otherwise, is actually sort of exempt from the blacklist law – it’s only images that count. Another example of the law’s effectiveness. But I digress. Back to the actual Safer Internet Forum. Frankly, it feels like it was more of a show, than an actual discussion – there were virtually no representatives of the internet industry – you know, blog hosts, internet service providers, search engines, Wikipedia, maybe – after all, given their negative attitude towards the blacklist, it’s not surprising. Instead, for some reason participants ranged from public officials to TV personalities. The bottom line of the conference: anonymity is bad thing; the black list is a good thing; all the fears that the internet community had were proven to be groundless (despite, you know, there being no one at the conference to voice a different opinion); and, finally, internet service providers need to be held accountable with complying with the blacklist. That last thing is a bit tricky – you see, if a website is blacklisted, it’s not like there goes a nation-wide signal and every ISP immediately blocks it. In fact, the procedure is so convoluted no one can actually give a straight answer, how a blacklisted website is to be made inaccessible nation-wide. For now, it seems, it’s a manual process. Those ISPs who feel like it, regularly check the blacklist and block these sites. Those that don’t – well, unless Roskomnadzor contacts them and asks them, their users can still access these sites with no problems. And even if they’re asked to block it, there are currently no methods of forcing compliance. That’s one of the proposals, actually – to introduce fines for such negligent organizations. So there’s that – pretty much, an exhaustive image of the state of internet safety here in Russia at this time.
As long as we’re talking about governance and internet, here’s a story you. Internet is a tool – and unless you know how to use a tool, any tool, you can hurt others and yourself. Yes, take this sentence in a very direct or metaphorical way – it’s true. So here’s a story of how one civil servant metaphorically shot himself in the foot. There’s this website, called “Our city. Moscow Development Program”, located at gorod.mos.ru – basically it allows citizens to oversee how their city is taken care of an report irregularities – for in-depth coverage, look up my previous broadcasts on English.ruvr.ru. Anyhow, one blogger has posted a somewhat viral article, describing his experience with the website. He used it to complain about poor efforts of the local municipal council regarding cleaning out snow – now, this is Russia, snow is nothing out of the ordinary and people generally are ready for it. So yes, the user Yuriy Ursu posted a complaint January 29th . February 1st he received a reply – paths have been cleared of snow. As proof, photos were provided. Well, the user ventured out and took photos himself, comparing the results. The version uploaded by the head of municipal council while wasn’t blatantly fake, suggested municipal workers did a better- than-real job. Besides a wider path cleared in the snow, the photo also magically scrubbed off graffiti from a nearby wall. That very night, the user posted another complaint, pointing out photo manipulation. This complaint was blocked – until February 4th, when, as I’ve said, the story went viral. Suddenly the complaint appeared on gorod.mos.ru, but the damage was done. The head of the municipal council has vacated the office – by his own decision, according to Moscow administration.