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Wikipedia fired the latest salvo on Tuesday in the ongoing battle for Internet freedom in Russia. The Russian-language Wikipedia Web site shut down access for 24 hours in a last-minute effort to sway public opinion as legislators gather to debate a censorship bill on Wednesday. Wikipedia’s largely symbolic move is part of a growing chorus of protests against a law that proponents say would make the Internet a safer place for kids.
When Russian legislators convene on Wednesday they will be putting final touches on a bill that easily sailed through the first reading in the house on Friday. Supporters of the bill, including deputies from all four parties in the Duma, say it will shield children from narcotics and suicide propaganda and child pornography. Under the bill, the federal government would set up a registry of blacklisted Web sites, and then require Web sites, Web site hosting companies and Internet service providers to help ban content.
Offending Web sites would, however, not be automatically blacklisted, according to the drafters of the bill. Roskomnadzor, which oversees communications regulations, is expected to transfer responsibilities for monitoring Web sites for "dangerous contents" to yet-to-be-identified non-profit organizations. If illegal content is found, the organizations must report back to the watchdog, which will then compel Internet service providers or Web site owners to delete the offending sites. In case such efforts fail, the site will be blacklisted within 24 hours.
Roskomnadzor is saddled with many other responsibilities. It must look out for “other illegal content in the Internet,” such as war propaganda or incitement of ethnic hatred, but it will require a court order to blacklist such Internet resources. Another provision in the bill requires that any program that contains content that is not appropriate for children under a certain age must include a warning, not just at the beginning of the program, but also after commercial breaks.
Faced with a cobweb of rules that could potentially put its operation at risk, Wikipedia blacked out its own content for 24 hours on Tuesday, like it did on January 18 to protest the anti-piracy legislation in the United States Congress. "Imagine a world without free knowledge," reads a statement on the Russian page of the largest free online encyclopedia on Tuesday. Wikipedia administrators said the proposed amendments “could become the basis for real censorship on the Internet as well as the formation of a list of banned sites and IP addresses with filtered information."
They also believe that “the practice of law that exists in Russia speaks of a high probability of the worst-case scenario in which access to Wikipedia would soon be closed across the country.” “Lobbyists and activists supporting the amendments argue that they are directed exclusively against content such as child pornography," said the statement. “But if the provisions and wording being discussed are followed, it will result in the creation of a Russian analogue of the Great Chinese Firewall."
Russian human rights activists also generally view the proposed changes to the law as an attack on the last bastion of free speech, coming as it were in the wake of middle-class protests in Moscow and other cities after the December parliamentary elections. Thanks largely to the Internet opposition leaders were able to assemble thousands of Russian citizens to put pressure on the authorities after the polls.
The real or perceived threat to Internet freedom has galvanized Russian opposition to call for reworking the bill. Such calls appear to be falling on sympathetic ears. Communications and Press Minister Nikolai Nikiforov conceded on Friday that the way the bill sets out to regulate content on the Internet is faulty. "The bill's idea related to protecting children from objectionable information is right, but there are problems with the mechanisms for doing so. It needs to be improved," Nikiforov said in a Twitter message on Friday.
Another high-profile call to ditch the law came last week from members of the influential Presidential Human Rights Council. In a joint statement, the members of the council blamed proponents of the law for treating the symptoms while neglecting the causes of illegal content and its distribution on the Internet. "This law will not contribute to the effectiveness of law enforcement and prosecution of criminals, who can move illegal content to other domains and IP address," the statement said. "The list of [Internet] resources that can be blocked under the draft bill is too broad and includes, in addition to child pornography, a number of subjective evaluation criteria.”
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