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.

Insatiable

— Former Trump advisor Felix Sater swindled Holocaust survivors out of $7 million, then threatened to sue when they tried to get their money back

Felix Sater, a former advisor to Donald Trump, once threatened to sue the family of two now-deceased Holocaust survivors who lost $7 million in a mafia-linked racketeering scheme perpetrated by Sater in the mid-90s. That’s according to court documents filed in 2015.

Donald Trump with Felix Sater (source)

The two victims, Ernest and Judit Gottdiener, who emigrated to the U.S. after the war, died before they could reclaim their stolen millions.

In 2013, Judit’s brother, an Israeli rabbi named Ervin Tausky, filed a $100 million civil case against Sater and his co-conspirator, Salvatore Lauria, on behalf of the Gottdieners.

In retaliation, Sater sent a letter through multi-national Israeli law firm, Zell, Aron & Co., threatening to sue Tausky for 4,000,000 shekels (approximately $1 million) unless Tausky agreed to withdraw all legal action against Sater in the U.S.

The firm claimed that Tausky had damaged “the good name of Sater and his family,” and put “Sater and his family in jeopardy, and in danger of being killed.”

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The case was later dismissed because, according to U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield, “aiding and abetting securities fraud cannot serve as a RICO predicate act.”

This week, The Washington Post and The New York Times leaked a series of e-mails showing how during Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Sater tried to help the Trump Organization to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Former FBI director Robert Mueller is currently investigating Trump for evidence of possible collusion between the campaign and the Russian government.

The Felix Sater Files (Part II)

— Exploring the deleted websites of Donald Trump’s racketeering Russian-American former Bayrock Group business partner and senior advisor

Last month, I blogged about the deleted sites of Bayrock executive Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman and convicted fraudster who in the late 2000s worked with Trump on a number of high-profile real estate projects, including the troubled Trump SoHo hotel in Lower Manhattan.

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In that post I included an “exhaustive” list of deleted sites that once belonged to Sater. The sites were deleted during the 2016 election, when Sater became a key figure for journalists examining Trump’s Russian business ties.

Since that initial post, I’ve found evidence that between 2012 and 2016 Sater registered a number of other domains intended to disparage another key figure within Trump’s business sphere, Jody Kriss, who also worked for Bayrock as its finance director.

Kriss’ tenure ended when he filed an explosive billion dollar lawsuit alleging that Bayrock and its partners, including Donald and Ivanka Trump, had illegally concealed Sater’s 1998 racketeering conviction and later 1999 sentencing, that the company had itself engaged in financial fraud, and that it had personally cheated Kriss out of millions of dollars.

Last year, an ICANN-approved business dispute resolution forum determined that Sater had in bad faith registered a number of domains using his own name, and also possibly using the pseudonym “Larissa Yudina,” for the purposes of disparaging Kriss by accusing him of being a “serial litigator,” an “extortionist,” a “mobster” and a “fraud.”

According to Arizona court documents, Yudina is the founder of Moscow investment company OST Group, which apparently provides “internet marketing services” to Sater, although I was unable to find OST Group or any information online for anyone with the name Larissa Yudina.

In its decision, the forum ruled that the disputed domains be transferred from Sater to Kriss.

Via the Wayback Machine, which archives the web, those domains included:

www.jodykriss.com

• and jodykriss.net

By doing a reverse Whois search for “Felix Sater” and an associated e-mail address I’ve also identified a number of other disparaging domain names possibly created by Sater, including:

• blackmailer.net
• blowjobgram.com
• cuntboy.net
• cuntboyjody.com
• cuntman.net
• extortionist.info
• fecalboy.com
• fecalmatter.lawyer
• fecesman.com
• felcher.info
• felcherboy.com
• iamadirtbag.com
iamafaggot.com
• iamascumbag.com
• jodykrissthief.com
• thejodykriss2.com
• truthaboutjodykriss.com
• vaginaboy.com
• vor-ton.com 

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It also appears that in 2014 Sater took out this full page advert in New York real estate magazine The Real Deal:

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And if that didn’t sate your appetite, here’s a full list of Sater’s confirmed anti-Kriss sites:

jodykriss.com
jodykriss.net
• 
jodykriss.org
jodykriss.info
jodylkriss.com
• 
jodylkriss.net
• 
jodylkriss.org
• 
jodylkriss.info
• jodykrisscrook.com
• jodykrissvorton.com
• vortonjodykriss.com
• jodykriss.co
• krissjody.com
• eastriverpartnersllc.com
• eastriverpartnersny.com
• theeastriverpartners.com
• eastriverpartnersgroup.com
eastriverpartners.net
• eastriverpartners.info

Kriss-Krossed

— Donald and Ivanka Trump were once named as co-defendants in a billion dollar money laundering lawsuit involving the Donald’s former Bayrock business partners

According to this apparently as-yet unreported 2013 court summons, the Trumps were co-defendants in a billion dollar lawsuit brought by Jody Kriss, the former finance director for New York real estate and investment company, Bayrock Group:

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Kriss claimed that the Trumps and their fellow co-defendants illegally concealed Russian-American Bayrock executive Felix Sater’s 1998 $40 million federal racketeering conviction, and later 2009 sentencing.

He also claimed that Bayrock was “engaged in the businesses of financial institution fraud, tax fraud, partnership fraud, insurance fraud, litigation fraud, bankruptcy fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, human trafficking, child prostitution, statutory rape, and, on occasion, real estate.”

The Trumps were later removed as co-defendants, although another court document shows that they were served the summons at New York’s Trump Tower on June 24, 2013.

Sekulow Attacks!

— After Politico profile about “amateur sleuths” highlights – count `em – three Shooting the Messenger Trump scoops, Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow tells Fox News that independent researchers are “wasting all of their time”

This week I was featured in a Politico profile about “self-assigned Bob Muellers” who are doing independent research into Donald Trump’s Russia and business connections.

The article, by Darren Samuelsohn, highlighted three stories first reported on this blog. One of them, that Trump’s former business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub his arrest (and later acquittal) for human trafficking from the web, was picked up by The Daily Beast last month.

The article also mentioned that I’d “documented Wikipedia editing records that show how Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, may have used a pseudonym to delete information about his criminal history from Trump’s Wikipedia page,” and also that I’d “identified about a dozen posts written under Trump’s name on his now-defunct Trump University blog that appeared to plagiarize content from news outlets including CNN, USA Today and The New York Times.”

Shortly after publication, Jordan Sekulow, director of the American Center for Law and Justice and the son of Jay Sekulow, Trump’s legal advisor during the Mueller investigation, appeared on Fox News to denounce me and the other featured researchers – including Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of highly respected fact-checking website Snopes – without disclosing his ties to Trump.

Here’s the clip, plus excerpt:

Sekulow: I think it’s wonderful that these people who are – who want to bring down the president – are wasting all of their time and money to do so. I don’t even think the special counsel is going to be able to find anything on the president, so good luck to these sleuths who are, again, spending all they’ve got to try and bring this president down. It does underscore, though, just how much hatred there is out there for this President of the United States, who was elected so overwhelmingly by the American people.

To which I say: If a part-time blogger like me with zero resources can locate and publish the kind of damning info I have on Trump, I can only imagine what the Mueller investigation is turning up!

For the record – savvy cat that I am – I found my scoops without spending a single penny.

Arif Gets Streisanded

— The Daily Beast picks up my story about Turkish court-ordered takedown requests by Trump’s Bayrock business partner Tevfik Arif re: his 2010 arrest in prostitution sting

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Via “Trump’s Business Partner Tries to Erase his Prostitution Bust From Web” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, July 21, 2007:

A former Russian government official – and business partner of Donald Trump’s – is gaining new notoriety, as the federal investigation into alleged election meddling widens.

Meanwhile, this Kazakh-born real estate mogul, Tevfik Arif, is doing his best to clean up his past, trying to purge the web of references to his arrest in an underage prostitution bust. He was later acquitted in the matter.

Arif, a former Soviet trade minister whose company once prospected for the Trump Organization in Russia and Eastern Europe, has demanded the removal of allegedly defamatory information about that arrest from websites that have investigated or recapped controversies involving some of President Donald Trump’s past business associates.

Some of those associates are now of keen interest to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators probing Russian influence in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s knowledge of it. According to a Thursday report from Bloomberg, Mueller is examining the finances of a Trump project involving the investment firm Arif founded.

[…]

Since May, [Arif] has sent four takedown requests to Google and one to Automattic, the owner of popular web publishing platform WordPress, demanding that they remove content from websites hosted by their respective companies that Arif claims is defamatory. Each complaint contained documents from Turkish court orders requiring the removal of similar web content. The takedown requests were first reported by the blog Shooting the Messenger.

A January 2016 post on one of the WordPress-hosted websites at issue claims that Arif was “charged with smuggling underage girls into the country for prostitution” and “accused of being the organizer of an international ring involving young girls.” It does not note that the charges were dropped.

Automattic partially complied with the request and blocked access to the website in Turkey, the company told The Daily Beast. Paul Sieminski, Automattic’s general counsel, said it risked the country’s government blocking access to all Wordpress-hosted sites if it failed to comply.

“This is not a decision we take lightly, but in our experience, failing to comply with a court order of this kind results in the blocking of all of WordPress.com, in Turkey—which removes the site in question, plus the millions of other sites that we host,” Sieminski wrote in an emailed statement.

Google did not respond to requests for comment on the takedown notices, though the websites listed in Arif’s complaint are still accessible from a US IP address. Efforts to reach Arif were unsuccessful, and Bayrock did not respond to questions.

Read my original posts by clicking here and here.

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.

roskomnadzors-october-31-2016-complaint-to-wordpress-about-ruben-tatulyan

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:

vladimir_putin-als-hitler

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.

russian-takedown-demand-to-wordpress

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.