A Brief History of Russian Internet Obscurantism in 2015

News and Analysis

The year 2015 was marked as the year of expanding obscurantism and controversies around several internet-related issues in Russia.

According to one of relatively new Russian laws, the state supervising agency Roskomnadzor has the right to restrict or prohibit access to any website at its own discretion and without any court rulings. The agency was enjoying the right every now and then.

Back in January 2015 it banned several websites related to bitcoin, including bitcoin.org, bitcoin.it, btcsec.com, coinspot.ru, hasbitcoin.ru, bitcoinconf.ru. Notably, even though there was a controversy in state policies in regard of cryptocurrency, no official decrees of any kind were released back then, so the agency’s activity had no legal justification whatsoever. This seemed enough for one of the banned sites’ owner, Ivan Tikhonov, who declared he would file an appeal.

Following several court sessions, a judge apparently came across the same idea. The court ruled that the restriction of access to those bitcoin-related websites was illicit. Roskomnadzor had to restore the access.
Certainly, cryptocurrency-related websites were but a tiny speck in a pile of other sites banned by Roskomnadzor. As the policy of banning sites had no obvious end, local non-profit Roskomsvoboda has declared a launch of a resource indended to help individuals restore their access to prohibited sites.

“Our mission is to teach anyone facing website blockage to bypass the blockage. Our site is intuitive, everything described therein is as simple as “click here, press that button, or download this”. If we can’t prevent the blockage itself, at least we can help users bypass them,” Artiom Kozliuk, head of Roskomsvoboda, stated in November 2015.

It was in November, when Roskomnadzor got around to Rutracker.org, which is probably the most popular BitTorrent tracker in many post-Soviet countries, including Russia. Several years ago it had already been banned, but the owners opted to move the tracker to another address. Now, following a court ruling under yet another law, the site was subject to “eternal ban” due to claims on copyright violation filed by several publishing houses.

Notably, when Rutracker.org took a poll asking its users whether they prefer to find a way of bypassing the eternal ban, or have most of the content removed, almost 70% of them answered they would rather try to bypass the ban.

Even though Roskomsvoboda launched a campaign on a class action lawsuit and filed several appeals concerning the ruling on the eternal ban, the courts seem to reject any of those. Rutracker and Roskomsvoboda also compiled a list of measures describing how to bypass the ban in detail. They state that all of them are absolutely legal.

However, the year 2015 seems to have caused a paradigm shift in the consciousness of Russian internet users. They realized that legal proceedings are unlikely to end up to their favor, and proceeded with finding a way to get out of Russian internet-hostile environment.

Internet became a concerning issue to the government after the mass protests of 2011, when the protesters coordinated their activities via social media like Facebook or local VK. Most probably, the lack of control over the internet troubled the authorities. In the wake of the protests, many laws somehow restricting the freedom of the worldwide web have been adopted. Even now, four years later, court rulings and laws still echo the events of 2011.

Anyway, the whole matter seems very far from being resolved.

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