Russian Law Being Used to Prevent the Disclosure of Banned Websites

— Russia’s media regulator is preventing Google from disclosing thousands of URLs that were banned under so-called “VPN law”

For the past week or so, Google has been embroiled in a censorship war over Russia’s attempts to ban instant messaging service Telegram.

Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor banned Telegram after the company refused to hand over encryption keys that would allow Russian security agents to spy on users’ private messages.

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Telegram has so far managed to circumvent the ban by using proxy servers, including Google sub-networks, allowing users in Russia to continue to communicate anonymously.

Yesterday, Roskomnadzor escalated the web war by banning certain Google IP addresses under Russia’s so-called “VPN law,” which regulates the use of Virtual Private Networks.

Takedown requests published by the online archive Lumen Database show that Roskomnadzor is using another legal tool brought in late last year, order N 217, to prevent Google from disclosing thousands of URLs that have been outlawed under the VPN law.

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“Google received a request from [Roskomnadzor] to remove over 635 URLs from Web Search in Russia,” reads one of the takedown requests published earlier today. “This request came under Russian federal law 276-FZ…commonly referred to as the ‘VPN law’. We are unable to publish the full list of URLs due to Russian law (Roskomnadzor order #217, appendix 3, dated October 25, 2017).”

The nature of the offending content, and whether or not Google has complied with Roskomnadzor’s demands, remains unclear.

Click here to read order N 217.

Russian Media Regulator Targets Award-Winning Trump Critic

— Russia’s media regulator is trying to censor an award-winning news website that reported on the Robert Mueller investigation

Roskomnadzor, a Moscow state-owned media regulator, has sent Google a court order demanding that it delist an award-winning opposition news website that reported about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

Grani, a popular Russian website that according to Reporters Without Borders provides “a forum for the many civil society groups, human rights defenders and opposition figures who are never seen on the main TV channels,” won a human rights prize in 2015 for its reporting on Internet censorship.

The online newspaper has reported extensively about the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russian authorities.

Headline: “Mueller can be trusted” (source)

Last month, Roskomnadzor sent a court order demanding that Google delist Grani from its search results, claiming the opposition website had called “for the implementation of extremist activities.”

Via the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests:

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According to Grani’s “About” page, the website is actually a mirror of another website that is currently blocked within the Russian Federation.

When you enter that website’s URL into a Russian proxy, you get this message:

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Via Google Translate:

Access to this page is prohibited, because [it] was included in the “Unified Register of Prohibited Sites”, containing information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in the Russian Federation, or in the “Federal List of Extremist Materials” on the website of the Ministry of Justice.

As of publication, Google has not delisted the mirrored website, and it is still available to view within Russia.

Error 451

WordPress censors critical blog post about Armenian Olympic Committee President and rumoured Sochi crime lord Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan following complaint from Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor

This is part three of a series of posts about WordPress, the San Francisco-based blogging platform which earlier this year said that – absent a U.S. court order – it chooses to ignore outside requests to censor content, but now complies with takedown demands from Russian and Turkish authorities.

In October, Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, sent a complaint to WordPress demanding that it censor a critical blog post about Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan, President of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia and rumoured Sochi crime lord.

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Roskomnadzor’s October 31, 2016 complaint to WordPress (source)

The offending blog post, which Roskomnadzor claims violates Tatulyan’s privacy “rights and freedoms,” describes an incident at Sochi International Airport earlier this year, when Tatulyan and his entourage – driving vehicles carrying Armenian embassy number plates – brazenly violated numerous traffic regulations.

According to Russian news reports, Tatulyan boasted to security staff about supposedly having acquired ambassadorship in Armenia, before speeding away in the wrong lane through the airport’s car park and ramming an automatic barrier.

A video of the incident, as captured on CCTV:

Tatulyan is not listed as holding office at the Armenian embassy in Russia, although several Russian news reports – including the targeted WordPress post – have alluded to his possible involvement in Russia’s criminal underworld.

One popular online publication, Crime Russia (itself the target of multiple takedown requests from Roskomnadzor), even alleges that Tatulyan is “shadow ruler” of all crime syndicates in Sochi, succeeding the notorious Russian mafia boss Aslan Usoyan aka Grandpa Hassan, who was assassinated in 2013.

Roskomnadzor’s complaint to WordPress does not try to refute these claims, instead citing a dubious Russian law restricting the publication of “personal data” in an effort to censor the offending blog post.

roskomnadzors-october-31-2016-complaint-to-wordpress-via-the-lumen-database

According to the Lumen Database, WordPress has partially enforced Roskomnadzor’s complaint (source)

Via my blog last month, WordPress recently changed its policy about how it responds to takedown requests.

Although the blogging platform has built a strong reputation on its principled support for free speech, it now says it complies with censorship demands in order to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users within authoritarian countries, who would otherwise face more severe punishment from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The change in policy goes back to March of last year, when a ban on a single blog post led Turkish ISPs to censor all of WordPress in Turkey.

Via this March 20, 2015 tweet, WordPress initially seemed intent on fighting the block…

wordpress-2015-response-to-turkey-censorship

…reaffirming its free speech bonafides via this January 28, 2016 Automattic entry, in which a spokesperson for WordPress stated that, without a U.S. court order, the company “refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey.”

Under our legal guidelines, we require a U.S. court order before proceeding with the removal of content from WordPress.com. To this point, we have refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey. After we receive notice of an order, Turkish ISPs, who are bound to obey the court orders, move to block the sites named in an order, making it unavailable to all visitors from Turkey without any further explanation.

However, last month WordPress admitted to having censored a Turkish political blog after receiving a complaint from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Per this undated Automattic entry, WordPress also recently started implementing blocks on request of Russian authorities, with the stated aim of “protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.”

Today, when we receive a takedown demand from RSOC [Roskomnadzor], we review it and will often end up suspending the site in question because of a violation of our Terms of Service (for selling drugs or containing pornography, for example). In cases where the site does not violate our terms, we try to take the most limited and transparent actions available: blocking content so that it is unavailable only in Russia, and blocking only the content specified in the takedown demand (rather than the entire site). We take this action with the goal of protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.

It’s possible to find out if WordPress has geo-blocked content in Russia by entering certain URLs – such as the one mentioned in the Roskomnadzor complaint – into a Russian proxy.

If WordPress has blocked the URL in question, you’ll see the following message, a nod to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451:

unavailable-for-legal-reasons-wordpress

A list of WordPress blogs currently geo-blocked in Russia is available by clicking here.

See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And: “WordPress Yields to Putin,” my December 3, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of “Putin-Hitler” mock photo on request of Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor.

WordPress Yields to Putin

WordPress censors “Putin-Hitler” mock photo on request of Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor

A couple of months ago, Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor sent a complaint to WordPress demanding that it remove a doctored photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin dressed as Hitler, claiming the image is “prohibited for public distribution in the Russian Federation.”

The offending image, via https://belgarathblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/vladimir_putin-als-hitler.jpg:

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According to the Lumen Database, a website which collects takedown requests of online content, WordPress has taken action against the German blog that hosts the image.

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Roskomnadzor’s September 27, 2016 complaint, via the Lumen Database

Indeed, when you enter the offending URL into a Russian proxy, you get this message

unavailable-for-legal-reasons-wordpress

…an HTTP error code approved late last year by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), and which has been endorsed by WordPress.

WordPress has developed a good reputation for its principled support of freedom of speech.

In 2008, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg stated that his company “supports free speech and doesn’t shut people down for ‘uncomfortable thoughts and ideas,’ in fact, we’re blocked in several countries because of that.”

However, WordPress recently changed its policy on geo-blocking. Via my blog last week, the blogging service said that it now complies with censorship demands in order to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users within authoritarian countries, who would otherwise face more drastic punishment from their Internet service provider.

A list of WordPress blogs currently geo-blocked in Russia is available by clicking here.


See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.