Beast from the East

— Round-up of news coverage re: Shooting the Messenger story about a DC-based Russian disinformation media campaign headed by a Russian government policy adviser

Last week, I blogged an original story about a new Washington DC-based Russian disinformation campaign that was the culmination of over a month’s research.

The story was subsequently picked up by The Daily Beast and cited in The Washington Post and Politico daily round-ups.

Via “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, June 10, 2018:

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A Russian government adviser who aims to wage an “information war” in the U.S. and Europe is running a new media venture a block from the White House that cybersecurity experts say has ties to the country’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called “USA Really.” Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of “growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.”

At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.

Malkevich sits on the Civic Chamber’s commission on mass media and communication. He is also running the show at USA Really, according to an FAN video on the project. The video features shots of a USA Really office space adorned with an American flag, a Confederate flag, and a framed “Make America Great Again” poster of President Donald Trump.

[…]

USA Really’s “flash mob” protest was initially scheduled for June 14, in what it says was a recognition of Flag Day and President Donald Trump’s birthday. But rather than applying for a rally protest with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which oversees such events, it asked the city’s film and television office for a film permit, the type that movie studios obtain before taping scenes on D.C. streets.

The FAN posted a copy of an email from the film office, which referred USA Really to the MPD. “Your permit application is denied,” the email read, “since we’ve determined that this is a rally more so than a filming.”

The FAN claimed on its website that it subsequently spoke with the MPD, which also denied them a permit and warned that they had alerted the CIA, which does not operate on U.S. soil, of USA Really’s activities. MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, a Belfast-based investigative writer who’s followed the USA Really case for weeks and first reported Malkevich’s involvement, that it had received no requests for a rally permit from the group.

[…]

For all its talk of combating misinformation, USA Really appears to be as invested in vendettas as it is in truth-telling. On Saturday, Jones received a diatribe from someone named Michael using a USA Really email address in response to a post he’d written on the group.

“Are you a semicrazy person?” Michael asked, according to a copy of the message provided to The Daily Beast. “WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation?”

Asked about that exchange, Michael, who said he was emailing from Moscow, struck a conciliatory tone. “Actually, I appreciate Dean’s work a lot so I offered her to write to us too,” he wrote, apparently unclear of Jones’ gender. “So I cannot tell you what I objected in her beautiful articles.”

Via “The Daily 202: North Korea summit prep encapsulates Trump’s winging-it presidency” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, June 11, 2018:

A Russian government adviser has launched a new media venture aimed at waging an “information war” in the United States and Europe. The outlet, called “USA Really,” attempted to hold a White House rally in protest of “growing political censorship … aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation,” but its permits were denied. (Daily Beast)

Via “Power Briefing: All eyes on Trump-Kim meeting” by Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, Daniel Lippman, and Zach Montellaro, Politico, June 11, 2018:

— “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.,” by The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay: “In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called ‘USA Really.’ Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of ‘growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.’

“At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.”

Russian Election Trolls Were Recruited via Online Job Posts

— Russian troll factory recruited “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, allegedly expected applicants to work for free

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice released the latest round of indictments in the federal investigation into alleged election meddling.

The indictments name 13 Russian nationals who allegedly “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes” on behalf of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious pro-Putin “troll farm” based in Saint Petersburg.

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According to the indictments, IRA trolls purchased “political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities,” organised “political rallies inside the United States…while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons,” and “without revealing their Russian association,” even “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

It would appear that members of IRA’s so-called troll army were carefully selected-and-vetted masters of political subterfuge.

However, archived job posts show the company recruited staff by placing conspicuous-sounding ads on Russian job websites, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

The ads for “Social Networking Specialist,” “Media Monitoring Specialist,” and “Content Manager,” among otherswere placed mid-2014, around the same time it’s alleged that IRA began operations to interfere in the 2016 election.

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Via Google Translate:

LLC Internet Research

St. Petersburg

Required work experience: 1-3 years

Full time, full day

SMM Manager / Social Networking Specialist / SMM Specialist

Duties:

Conducting projects in social networks
Preparation of thematic posts
Content placement
Work with reviews
Development and implementation of mechanisms to attract the audience of social networks
Conducting groups in social networks: filling with information content, links, surveys
Monitoring company mentions on the network
Monitoring of target groups
Monitoring social networks and the blogosphere

Requirements:

Knowledge of the basics of SMM / SMO
Competent Russian language
Experience of successful work with social networks (content and attracting the audience)
Creativity of thinking
The ability to write information texts
Confident PC user Responsibility, dedication, active life position, initiative, diligence, ability to work in a team
The experience of creating a community (launching and maintaining discussions)
Own active blog or group in social networks

Conditions:

Opportunity for professional growth and career development
Work in a young and friendly team
Working hours: 5/2
Wages up to 40,000 rubles
Staraya Derevnya, m. Chernaya Rechka
Full time in the employer’s territory

According to a post by a former IRA intern on another Russian job website that allows employees to review their employers, a revolving door of “very young adolescent 18-20-year-old” applicants were expected to work for free at the behest of the “ubiquitous aunt Tatyana”—presumably referring to Tatyana Kazakbayeva, who according to Business Insider used to work at the company.

In 2015, IRA was sued by a former employee, St. Petersburg resident Lyudmila Savchuk, for non-payment of wages and for failing to give employees proper working contracts.

Savchuck received symbolic damages of one rouble after reaching an agreement with her former employer.

Oh Betsy!

— Did someone from Betsy DeVos’ investment firm try to scrub unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family from online bio?

Last month, I blogged that former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo paid an employee from his own PR firm to scrub Wikipedia of references linking him to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and subsequently covered by The Washington Post.

Now I think I’ve found another one.

According to Wikipedia editing records, it appears that someone from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ private investment firm, Windquest Group, attempted to delete unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family.

Betsy DeVos (source)

DeVos was chairman of the firm at the time the edits were made in August 2015 by Wikipedia user “WindquestGroup,” who was subsequently banned indefinitely because the “account’s edits and/or username indicate that it is being used on behalf of a company, group, website or organization for purposes of promotion and/or publicity.”

The user had attempted to delete supposedly “unnecessary” facts that DeVos’ mother, Elsa Prince, once supported “an anti-gay marriage ballot proposal in California,” and that DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, “founded Blackwater USA, a private security firm” that killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

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The Blackwater founder is currently facing scrutiny “over reports that he met the head of a Russian investment fund in an apparent effort to set up a back channel for Russian communication with the Trump administration, and that senior Trump officials had authorized the meeting,” according to CNN.

Top Trumps Endorse Sater

— Top Trump Organization executives endorse controversial “Russia-gate” figure Felix Sater on business networking website LinkedIn

As the federal investigation into Russia’s alleged election meddling heats up, a controversial Moscow-born real estate investor and former “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” is back in the spotlight.

Felix Sater gained notoriety during the 2016 election when his criminal past became a focal point for journalists investigating Trump’s business ties to Russia.

Sater (right) at the launch of Trump SoHo (source)

In the mid-to-late 2000s, Sater collaborated with Trump on a number of high-profile development projects, including the troubled Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan.

After his collaborative work with Trump, Sater is best known for stabbing a man in the neck with a broken margarita glass, and for his involvement in a $40 million mafia-linked racketeering scheme that robbed two elderly holocaust survivors of their savings (when the couple tried to recoup their money, Sater threatened to sue).

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In recent years, Trump has sought to distance himself from his former business partner, and in a 2013 video deposition for a civil lawsuit testified that “if [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

However, recent reports by The New York Times suggest Trump has an ongoing relationship with Sater reaching far beyond the now-president’s business empire.

In a 2015 e-mail, Sater promised Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen that he would engineer a real estate deal with the aid of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, which he said would help Trump win the presidency.

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Earlier this year, Sater met with Cohen to discuss a plan to lift sanctions against Russia. Cohen subsequently hand-delivered the proposals to the office of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who last week pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

Now new details have emerged that shed light on Trump’s shadowy relationship to Sater, whose LinkedIn profile states that he worked for The Trump Organization as a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” between 2010 and 2011.

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According to LinkedIn, no fewer than four top executives who were “Felix’s colleagues at The Trump Organization,” including executive vice president and counsel George A. Sorial, have endorsed Sater using the site.

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Sorial, sometimes referred to as Trump’s “right-hand man,” endorsed Sater in the categories of “Real Estate,” “Real Estate Development,” and “Due Diligence.”

Sater’s other endorsements include former senior advisor to Trump, Michael Boccio; former vice president of The Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, Matthew Brimhall; and former Trump Organization purchasing director, Sid Leibowitz.

Tying together his business and political interests, Sater’s Linkedin profile also includes two noteworthy congratulatory posts about his former boss.

The first, from May 4, 2016:

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And the second, from November 11, 2016:

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Caputo Rattles His Saber

— Ex-Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo threatens legal action against ThinkProgress for reporting that he helped improve Vladimir Putin’s image in the United States

Earlier today, the progressive news website reported that Donald Trump’s campaign is to create a legal defence fund for all staffers involved in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of possible collusion between the campaign and the Russian government.

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The report by ThinkProgress associate editor Melanie Schmitz stated that “Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo – who was previously responsible for improving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image in the United States, and who is currently facing his own set of legal woes in relation to the Mueller investigation – believes that it’s the RNC’s duty to cover legal fees for the president.”

Caputo subsequently messaged Schmitz publicly on Twitter threatening to take legal action against ThinkProgress, Schmitz, and her senior editor Emily Hazzard unless Schmitz changed her article to say that he “never worked for Putin,” and that he’d “never been contacted by Mueller’s team.”

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While it’s true Caputo never actually worked for Putin, his former PR firm Rainmaker Interactive once represented Alfred Kokh, chief executive of Russian state-owned media company Gazprom Media, and helped burnish the company’s reputation with U.S. media and policymakers.

Via “Ex-Trump Aide Scrambles to Scrub Russia From Bio” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, November 6, 2017:

At the time, Gazprom had just acquired NTV, one of Russia’s few major opposition media outlets, sparking an internal revolt among staff. Gazprom dispatched security services to seize NTV’s headquarters in a move that was widely condemned as an assault on independent Russian media. According to Kokh, Putin personally sanctioned the crackdown.

In an interview last year, The Buffalo News characterized Caputo’s subsequent PR work for Gazprom Media as “help[ing] President Vladimir Putin weather U.S. government criticism for taking over an independent TV station.” Caputo says that characterization is inaccurate, though he told the paper at the time, as Petkanas noted, that he is “not proud of the work today,” adding the caveat that at “at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”

As the title of that article suggests, Caputo recently paid an employee at his current PR firm, Zeppelin Communications, to scrub Wikipedia of all language linking him to Putin.

Caputo Gets Streisanded

— The Washington Post covers Shooting the Messenger scoop re: Efforts by ex-Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo to scrub Russia from his Wikipedia bio

On Monday, The Daily Beast reported my scoop that Caputo paid his PR firm to purge Wikipedia of evidence that he helped promote Russian President Vladimir Putin in the United States.

Yesterday, The Washington Post covered the story as part of its daily round-up. Via “The Daily 202” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, November 8, 2017:

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— An employee of former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo was blocked from Wikipedia in August after the site’s editors said he was caught using multiple pseudonymous accounts to scrub the page of Caputo’s ties to Vladimir PutinThe Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay reports: “After the accounts were exposed as what Wikipedia calls ‘sock puppets’ — multiple accounts run by the same person as part of a coordinated editing campaign —[the employee, Sean Dwyer], admitted he had financial ties to the subjects of his edits. It’s just the latest front in Caputo’s battles to save his reputation from, what he sees as, Russian smears. He also says he has filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) over comments at a congressional hearing in March, where the California Democrat accused Caputo of having been Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ‘image consultant[.’]”

Wikipedia Offers Assistance to Ex-Trump “Wiki-Sneak”

— Wikipedia invites ex-Trump advisor Michael Caputo “to one of our DC editing events to learn how to use Wikipedia properly” after he gets busted trying to scrub his online bio

Last week, I blogged about Caputo’s attempts to purge Wikipedia of evidence that he helped promote Russian President Vladimir Putin in the United States.

Michael Caputo (source)

Via “Ex-Trump Aide Frantically Scrambles to Scrub Russia From Bio” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, November 6, 2017:

[Zeppelin Communications executive Sean Dwyer’s] editing campaign, which was first reported by independent blogger Dean Sterling Jones, shows that…he repeatedly attempted to remove language from the page that tied [former Trump adviser Michael Caputo’s] work for Gazprom to any efforts to burnish Putin’s reputation abroad.

[…]

Caputo denied that Dwyer had run afoul of any Wikipedia guidelines. “Sean has done nothing wrong except engage with Wikipedia according to their rules, which apparently put him in the sights of a wanker trolling me from his mommy’s basement,” he said.

Today, Wikipedia invited Caputo “or anyone in politics” to “come to one of our DC editing events to learn how to use Wikipedia properly.”

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From this tweet, it appears that Caputo has accepted the invite:

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The Daily Beast Busts Ex-Trump “Wiki-Sneak”

— Former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo takes swipe at me in The Daily Beast for blogging about his campaign to scrub Russia from his Wikipedia bio

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Via “Ex-Trump Aide Frantically Scrambles to Scrub Russia From Bio” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, November 6, 2017:

Former Donald Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo is determined to prove that he did not work for Vladimir Putin, and he’s using every tool at his disposal to do so—from a congressional ethics complaint, to a defamation lawsuit, to a surreptitious Wikipedia edit campaign.

Sean Dwyer, an employee of Caputo’s PR firm, Zeppelin Communications, was blocked from Wikipedia in August after he was caught using multiple pseudonymous accounts to purge Caputo’s page of alleged Putin ties, according to an investigation by the site’s editors. After the accounts were exposed as what Wikipedia calls “sock puppets”—multiple accounts run by the same person as part of a coordinated editing campaign—Dwyer admitted he had financial ties to the subjects of his edits.

[…]

Given what Caputo characterizes as widespread—and even malicious—misrepresentations of his work in Russia, “Wikipedia inaccuracies barely even make it on my radar,” he said.

And yet, Dwyer’s editing campaign, which was first reported by independent blogger Dean Sterling Jones, shows that Caputo was at least aware of the claims and determined to purge them. Dwyer did so through four different “sock puppet” accounts, according to Wikipedia’s investigation, and edit logs show he repeatedly attempted to remove language from the page that tied Caputo’s work for Gazprom to any efforts to burnish Putin’s reputation abroad.

Though it’s fairly common, “sock-puppetry is one of the cardinal sins of Wikipedia,” according to William Beutler, the president of digital marketing firm Beutler Ink and a longtime personal and professional Wikipedia editor. “We do this legitimately every day. But our approach is different from what they do here,” Beutler said in an interview. Unlike Dwyer, “we disclose who our clients are at the starting point.”

Caputo denied that Dwyer had run afoul of any Wikipedia guidelines. “Sean has done nothing wrong except engage with Wikipedia according to their rules, which apparently put him in the sights of a wanker trolling me from his mommy’s basement,” he said.

I deny all accusations that I live in my mother’s basement.

Update, 7/11/2017: The story was subsequently covered by Raw Story here, Wonkette here, and Just Security 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…

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…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.