Russian legislators call for cleaning up the cyberspace, may carpet bomb harmless content
Turns out that deputies are scrambling to create the first Russian web blacklist. Tuesday July 3rd was set as the date for considering the bill creating a register of websites with illegal information in its first reading - and it just might pass. This is actually a collection of amendments to laws "On information", "On protecting children" and "On communications". These amendments were drawn up by the League of Safe Internet and it's aimed at curbing spread of illegal information online. Basically it will create a single register of domain names and particular URLs as well as IP addresses of web pages and sites that contain information that is illegal to distribute in Russia - regardless of the medium. So before anyone cries "censorship", I'd like to remind you that it's standar practice for governments to ban certain information. The register will include sites hosting child exploitation media, instructions on creating weapons and illegal substances, advocating suicides, drugs and psychotropic substances and so on. But it's not that black and white. For instance, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti has published an article on the subject outlining the controversy. An unnamed source of a large internet company expressed outrage of the whole industry: the bill has not been publicly discussed, it's being fast-tracked and the requirement of banning certain IP addresses is a "questionable technical solution", he said. Minister of Communications and Mass Media Nikolai Nikiforov told the newspaper that his agency also does not appreciate the bill in its current form, especially the part describing the way content is supposed to be filtered. He said what probably everyone else was thinking - there needs to be a solution that would on one hand guarantee children's safety and on the other would not go against principles of free speech.
Besides, it looks like the medicine is fighting symptoms, not underlying causes. In other words, instead of addressing the source of the problem, the bill will work only superficially. Marina Junich, Government Relations Director of Google Russia, explains that if a website will be blocked through either a domain name or IP address, the content will still exist. If a domain is blocked, the same server can simply take up another name, if an address is blocked, it can be copied to another machine. It's relatively easy to avoid such measures by constantly "running" from the ban-hammer. But on the other hand, Internet Service Providers and web hosts will be the ones that feel the pain. What exactly is banning an IP address? Well, and IP address consists of four decimal numbers, each ranging from 0 to 255. They consist of two parts: the network part and the machine part. Sometimes the last part changes. For example, a user connects to the internet through his internet service provider - he gets assigned an IP address. He signs off, signs in again - he gets a new address - it has the same network part, since it's the same provider, but he can get a different machine part. So if someone wants to ban this user from accessing a service, they can either do it by the full address - which will ban him until his reconnection - or use masks and ban any user from that particular internet service provider - which is the only way to effectively do it in case of dynamic IP addresses. As you can see, this digital carpet bombing, while does achieve a certain result, it also poses problems for users who did nothing wrong. So if providers are forced to ban websites hosted on servers through these masks, chances are other pages with nothing illegal will go down as well - that's like shooting a rat with bunker-busters: sure, you'll kill it, but you'll also take down innocent victims. Junich actually provides a vivid example: someone has uploaded and extremist video to YouTube. Someone from the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur brought that to the attention of the local court. So how did they deal with the situation? Well, they forced providers to block whole YouTube. If this becomes standard practices, soon we can expect large file hosts, social networks and blog platforms to become inaccessible to everyone - just a single piece of extremist media posted by a single user on the web service is enough to guarantee that, apparently. Matvey Alexeev, Executive Director of the Technology and Internet Infrastructure Development Assistance Foundation believes any sort of filtration will through the Russian part of the web 10 years back in terms of traffic. But after all, you don't have to block whole websites, right? You can just block certain pages. Well, it's easy in theory, but implementation is actually quite complicated - in other words, expensive. Project Director of MTS mobile telecom company Dmitry Kostrov estimates that in order to facilitate the ability of internet service providers to block certain pages on websites and not whole platforms, collectively they would have to spend about $50 million US and install new equipment. And besides - as I've said, the method of blocking users from accessing illegal content is very superficial. Industry experts agree that the legal initiative should strive for working with web hosts that actually physically delete this content. Imagine you have found a rotting fish in your freezer. What is currently proposed is that you take a bowl and you put in over the rotten fish - see, problem solved, you can no longer smell it! Only in this case it goes further - the bill either seals your whole fridge, preventing you from accessing other, less smelly contents, or leaving the possibility rotting fish moving around, requiring you to dispense numerous bowls to cover it up. It would be easier, it seems, to simply throw out the rotting fish, right? Enough with the metaphors, anyway. The suggestion to remove content, rather than make it inaccessible, could be translated into the requirement of online services pre-moderating all content, which will greatly slow down the natural flow of information. In any case, this legislation in its current half-baked form can lead to mass lawsuits, legitimate web services being shut down due to some bad apples and general chaos and derpression of the Russian cyberspace. At least that's the opinion of leading ICT and internet companies. Well, I guess we'll see what this week brings us and whether legislators are interested in the seeing the downside of their noble aspirations. I guess the saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is quite appropriate here. I would also like to remind that this is eerily similar to the SOPA confrontation that happened in the US a few months back - only instead of protecting the minds of children, the motivation was protecting wallets of media companies - that time massive public outcry and overwhelming support from internet giants helped turn the tide and postpone the anti-piracy bill for an undetermined period.
Oh, remember how I mentioned yesterday that the Federal Tax Service announced their new portal that would help entrepreneurs start and run their business and safely wade the sea of tax-related paperwork? Well, there’s some news in a similar vein. In his Budget Address last week, President Vladimir Putin has suggested creating a unified web portal for Russia’s budget system that would work in real time. It would provide info on all state funded organizations nationwide in real time. Quote “The information must have a unified format, as convenient and simple as possible in order to be used for analysis. There needs to be functionality allowing to monitor funds going to each recipient from the budget and how efficiently these resources are spent.” Unquote. So in other words, this website will allow Russians to exercise civil control over the budget process – kind of the same thing that website RosPil are shooting for. As with all such civil control projects, this enables anyone to become an impromptu investigator and call for legal action should suspicions arise. In the Address Vladimir Putin suggested that the success of social economy and budget policies depend not only on governmental institutions, but on the citizens understanding these policies. The portal would also hopefully facilitate the latter. However, this is all information there currently is on the project. In other words, there were no agencies entitled with the development and no deadlines were set. By the way, a similar website does exist – but only for Moscow. If you visit budget.mos.ru. It’s very technical and very boring for someone not interested in cold hard numbers, but for the inquisitive visitor it proves to be a treasure trove of financial data, providing a thorough breakdown of the city’s incomes and expenditures. Hopefully the Russian budget web portal will look something like that.
And there’s yet some more legal news concerning the online medium. The Finance Ministry website has just posted projects for two Federal laws that would change the way online shops in Russia operate. The change is a significant one. When the bills are passed, stores selling services and goods remotely (i.e. through the internet) will have to accept bank cards as payment. This is part of the Ministry’s initiative to transfer the economy into a cashless one – cash payments are being severely limited in the near future. The problem with online shops particular is that the majority accept only cash on delivery and don’t record their transactions. In other words, they easily avoid paying taxes. Given the immense number of such online stores, their growing popularity and their low prices (probably explained by tax dodging) the change may be a significant blow to the Russian e-commerce, albeit a just one.