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Analysis: From Censorship To Content Filtering In Russia

  • Julie Corwin --> Last month, the management of a poetry website based in Russia ( instructed authors to observe certain political censorship requirements, REN-TV reported on 26 January. Authors were forbidden to write about the war in Chechnya or the ongoing protests over the reform of social benefits. They were admonished not to criticize President Vladimir Putin, the government, members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, or the pro-Putin youth movement Moving Together. Poet Vladislav Sergeev predicted that no one would publish on the site anymore because of the restrictions. project manager Dmitrii Kravchuk told REN-TV that "since the [subjects are] rather sensitive, it is easier to limit publications of such works than to try and guess what the president may or may not like." Kravchuk added that politicians have been speaking about the lack of control on the web for a long time. "We wanted to take preemptive steps before the issue of state and legal regulation is raised and certain conclusions are drawn," he said. Less than a week later, in response to the "negative reaction from the literary community," the directive to authors on the poetry website was taken down, "Russkii zhurnal" reported on 31 January.

Kravchuk is correct that politicians have been discussing the lack of control on the Internet for a long time. Last summer, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Tarachev (Unified Russia) and Federation Council members Lyudmila Narusova and Dmitrii Mezentsev revealed that they were members of a two separate working groups drafting regulations for the Internet (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 16 July 2004).

More recently, discussion of actual legislation has died down but not calls for controls over Internet content. In an article on on 31 January, analyst Mikhail Sergeev argues that policymakers have substituted the more sophisticated term "content filtering" for the unpleasant word "censorship." In December, Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency Director Mikhail Seslavinskii, speaking at a press conference devoted to the 10th anniversary of, declared that the Internet has become a basic information resource. However, he added, it had become "polluted," "Izvestiya nauki" reported on 27 January. Therefore, Seslavinskii said, the government should support the "creation of special programs for limiting access to sites that undermine moral values."

Speaking at a conference on "Information Security in Russia in a Global Information Society" on 26 January, Seslavinskii's deputy, Andrei Romanchenko, called for the introduction of content filters on certain segments of the Internet. Romanchenko said that a government policy on filtering would provide society and individual citizens a "defense against harmful and illegal content." He added that content filters are a programming capability for maintaining the "personal hygiene" of the Internet.

So far, the ministers with real possibilities of regulating the Internet, Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman and Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, have spoken out against new legislation or establishing any special kind of Internet regime. In December, however, Sokolov called the Internet a "multiheaded hydra" and advised that the Internet was spinning "out of control" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2004). But he added that it is too early to formulate a state policy regarding the Internet and banning certain content from the Internet is not practical. "Anyone who wants to can move from one domain to another, crossing borders, without even leaving their apartment," he explained.

Reiman, by contrast, seems not to even consider regulating the Internet desirable, even if it were possible. In an online interview with and its readers on 2 February, Reiman said that he opposes the introduction of content filters. "The Internet is developing well, and our task [is to see] that this continues," Reiman said. He added that any legal issues stemming from incorrect information spread on the web are already covered by the law on the mass media: "This is not a technical issue but a legal one," he concluded. Of course, Reiman's enthusiasm may have been tailored for's web-savvy audience, but speaking at a meeting of the Federation Council's Information Policy Committee on 2 November, Reiman expressed the same sentiments. He said that there is no need for a law on the Internet.

According to "Novye izvestiya" on 3 November, members of the commission's working group for developing legislation on the Internet agreed for the most part with Reiman. "Trying to create a separate law on the Internet is like trying to create a law regulating the solar system," Federation Council representative from Chelyabinsk Yevgenii Yeliseev said. "This is obvious to any sane person who understands what the Internet is." However, the daily reported, some senators believe that the new version of the law on mass media should contain specific articles on the Internet, while other senators support the development of a special code for users and providers, the norms of which would put in order information flows on the Internet.

Obstacles to filtering Internet content exist not only from a legal point of view, but from the technical side as well. For example, some experts question whether even content filters deployed on a national basis could really do the job. Igor Ashmanov, general director of Ashmanov and Partners, which specializes in developing programs to combat spam, told on 26 January that certain large companies have been using filters for years to prevent employees from accessing certain websites. But implementing such a system for the entire Russian Internet, as has been done in China, would be impossible. All Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to route their traffic to a single server. And if state officials tried to implement such a program, private ISPs would drag the responsible government agency through the courts. Even Romanchenko admitted that content filters do not always work. He noted that banned sites inevitably slip through and for the filtering programs to work, "their databases have to be updated continuously."

Meanwhile, Internet users in Belarus have been advised that it is easy to bypass blocks on certain Russian gay and lesbian websites that were instituted in January by that country's state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, Beltelekam. According to on 2 February, users can simply use a proxy server or an "anonymizer," a third-party website that would retrieve material from the blocked sites. Should Russian legislators ever decide to follow in the footsteps of Belarus, Russian Internet users will not have to go far to seek advice on how to bypass government controls.