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Will Russia Start Blocking Websites in Real Time?

Could real-time Internet filtration be coming to Russia? Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Could real-time Internet filtration be coming to Russia? Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

With the RuNet already plagued by Roskomnadzor blacklistsblogger registration, and the blocking of Twitter accounts with no discernible justification, Russia now wants to introduce an automated real-time filtering system that will block websites that contain “harmful content.” 

The proposed plan would add a second layer of censorship to Russia's already-pervasive website blacklist system, under which ISPs are required to block all websites containing “calls to riots, extremist activities, the incitement of ethnic and (or) sectarian hatred, terrorist activity, or participation in public events held in breach of appropriate procedures.” 

According to an ITAR-TASS report, Russia would require ISPs to install “smart filters” that would screen and block “harmful content”, which would presumably be identified based on a pre-determined list of keywords. The “smart filtering” idea and its technical details have been proposed by the Safe Internet League, a Kremlin-loyal NGO partnering with several large Russian ISPs.

Safe Internet League executive director Denis Davydov explains that existing blacklists are not great at filtering out dangerous content, and says their system, once installed at the level of ISPs, could analyze web content in real time and easily block offensive pages:

“Мы предлагаем ввести предустановленную фильтрацию интернета, которая позволяет автоматически в режиме реального времени определять содержимое страницы, запрашиваемой пользователем. Система оценивает содержимое страницы и определяет категорию, к которой относится информация. В случае если категория является запрещенной, система автоматически блокирует интернет-страницу”.

We suggest introducing preemptive Internet filtering, which allows us to automatically determine the content of the page queried by the user in real time. The system evaluates the content on the page and determines the category which the information belongs to. In case the category is forbidden, the system blocks the webpage automatically.

The typically snarky personalities of the RuNet thought the League's new initiative would do nothing to create a safer online environment — instead, the added layer of algorithmic bureaucracy would only contribute to the existing limits already imposed on netizens in Russia, and would make the users work even harder to access their preferred content.

Photographer Anton Martynov mockingly suggested that Russia was succeeding in its bid to “solve the Internet”:

The world over is struggling and can't figure this out, but the Safe Internet League in Russia has solved it: http://t.co/zXUV1FjkzW – hooray, glory to Russia!!!

Blogger Ilya Varlamov was incensed at the new filtering initiative:

Safe Internet League proposes implementing pre-filtering of content in Russia. Somebody please calm them down, would you?

Internet entrepreneur Gaidar Magdanurov thought the Safe Internet League's efforts were entirely counterproductive:

“Safe Internet League” continues to fight the internet – http://t.co/tWOpMBLIGt.

Earlier this summer, Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina  had already proposed an automated Internet filtering system in an attempt to protect the minds of Russia’s youngsters. Mizulina demanded that the Internet service providers block “adult” Web content by default in an effort to create a “Clean Internet.” Consumers would be allowed to opt out of the filtration system, but only by making a special request to their ISP.

Davydov says developers at the Safe Internet League have already tested their two-step filtration model in Kostroma and Omsk regions, as well as the Komi Republic, and have found it works quite well (or so he says). Should the system go into broader use, it will generate a significant escalation of state attempts to control the Russian Internet. Users have found multiple ways of getting around blocks generated by blacklists, using VPNs and other circumvention tools to view their favorite blacklisted websites. If the “smart filtering” system is indeed implemented, one can only guess how quickly Russian netizens will learn to work around the new, ever-pervasive Internet controls.

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