We have outlined before, here on LiquidVPN, that Russia is no stranger to bending the internet to suit its own will. Its (most likely) state-sanctioned internet hacking and trolling has grown to be a force to be reckoned with. It has been a long time resident on Reporters Without Borders’ ‘Enemies of the Internet’ list along with North Korea and China. Besides hacking and releasing well coordinated fake news events, Russian censorship has also gained notoriety.
Russia Blocks Wikipedia
After a prosecutor in Russia saw a Wikipedia article on charas- also known as hash or hashish- he was offended enough to order internet service providers (ISP) to block the page. The prosecutor hails from a small village of 8000 called Chyorny Yar. In June a court agreed with him which got the ball rolling.
However, because Wikipedia uses HTTPS protocol the government was unable to block just the single page. So what does the government do? Orders to block all of Wikipedia because of the single article.
It’s funny to note that this village doesn’t suffer from drug abuse, or produce marijuana on a giant (if any) scale. The only precedence for taking offense to this page would be a recently passed law that bans any information on drug abuse, suicide, and inciting hatred. This new law has given the government the ability to further block sites on an increasingly censored Russian internet.
Russia may have a new title though: the shortest ban on Wikipedia ever. The following day, amid a massive outcry from Russian netizens, Russia lifted the ban. Of course, in order to save face for immediately lifting a ban they had to make something up. The official report is that the ban was lifted due to the offending material being removed from the Wikipedia article. The problem with this; nothing on the article has changed- which has been confirmed by Wikipedia editors.
Russia Bans Reddit
Just two weeks before Russian censorship focused on Wikipedia they also had a short stint of blocking Reddit. The agency in charge of Russian censorship, Roskomnadzor, decided to block the site after a two year old thread,
dormant and written in Cyrillic, on growing psychedelic mushrooms was discovered.
Just like Wikipedia, the same problem with HTTPS was encountered leading the government to block the entire site. However, the site wide ban was lifted once Russian Censorship authorities could ban the single page from being viewed in Russia.
Reddit is the 31st most popular website in the world and 163rd in Russia according to Alexa.
How do Nationals View Russian Censorship?
How the citizens of Russia view the internet is mostly a product of the autocratic government’s effort to create an us vs. them mentality. One related fact to point out is Putin’s incredibly high approval rating- in the 80% range- even as the Russian economy is in near freefall. This is due in large part from sanctions and the decision of OPEC to not prop up oil prices.
Compare that to President Obama’s approval rating which has hit a recent high of 50% (his best since 2009) even though the economy is doing much better than it was 8 years ago.
In order to organize citizens against the internet Russia has developed 2 narratives as described in this Washington Post article. The first is the threat of foreign governments attacking Russia politically, economically, and militarily. The second is the threat of dissidents within Russia aiming to destabilize Russia (like they need to try that hard).
Having a stranglehold on the media makes Russian censorship easy: even online. Popular blogs- those with more than 3,000 daily readers- must register with the government, social media platforms must store six months of user data, and a growing blacklist enables Russia to block foreign media outlets. In October of 2014 CNN International stopped broadcasting in Russia.
The mental firewall that Russia has created is perhaps even more effective than any virtual firewall they could ever implement online. Russian censorship online has only really picked up over the last two years. In 2009 only 9% of Russians got any news online. Whereas 90% watched the State controlled news on TV- and trust it. The number of Russians getting their news online jumped to 24% according to a poll conducted in June 2014. Given this increase, Russia is just now beginning to implement hefty online censorship.
The vast majority of Russians trust Putin, the government, media, and what those sources have to say. Some part of that is endearing, we as humans want to trust our leaders but that simply just is not the case in the western world. There is another part of Russians trusting Putin that is frightening. Especially when you consider that the 3 sources that they trust the most are all the same. And even more so when you look at Putin’s actions and beliefs- like calling the internet a CIA project in 2014.
Russian Censorship Numbers
A poll on what Russians think about internet and censorship conducted by Global Communication Studies and the Russian Public Opinion Research Center was recently released. Here are some key takeaways:
- Almost half (49%) of all Russians believe that information on the Internet needs to be censored;
- A plurality (42%) of Russians believe foreign countries are using the Internet against Russia and its interests. About one-quarter of Russians think the Internet threatens political stability (24%);
- About four out of five Russians (81%) stated a negative feeling toward calls to protest against the government and change political leadership;
- The Russian government and the Russian security service were virtually tied in the percentage of Russians (42% and 41% respectively) that cited these organizations as trusted regulators of the Internet;
- 51% of Russian believe the primary motivation of government legislation creating a blacklist of websites is the maintenance of political stability versus 13% who believe the primarily motivation was limiting democratic freedoms;
- 39% of Russian believe personal blogs should be regulated the same as mass media websites.
It seems that even if the internet wasn’t censored in Russia, a vast majority would be incredibly reluctant to change their point of views- the mental firewall.
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