THIS summer Russians faced several state attempts to “filter” (selectively block) websites. And as in many other things, Russia has gone its own way with a slightly more complicated technique: regional filtering.
There are two ways to control the internet. You can influence the companies and bloggers who use the web, or you can muck with the architecture of the web itself to block or monitor traffic. China does both. Russia, so far, has leaned on websites and telecoms operators using its criminal code, and encouraged groups of like-minded citizens to nudge the online conversation in directions the Kremlin finds pleasing. Until now, few websites have been blocked altogether in Russia.
But this year three such cases were identified. In each, the site was blocked only within a certain region. On July 16th, the city court of Komsomolsk-on-Amur obliged Rosnet, a local internet provider, to ban YouTube and the Internet Archive, among other sites. The court was worried about far-right extremist material that can be found on the sites; it is the country's first YouTube ban. The decision has not been enforced. For similar reasons in late July, a regional court in Ingushetia forced a local provider to block LiveJournal, Russia's most popular blogging site. And in August in the Tula region, the state-controlled local telecoms operator temporarily blocked the website of Tulksiye Priyanki, an independent regional news portal.
In each case, the region used internet-protocol or “IP” blocking, a straightforward way of preventing anyone within a certain network — in this case those of the regional providers — from viewing viewing content at specific address. This could be described as an inefficient method, since it can be sidestepped with a proxy server, which mimics a location outside of the network.
But regional filtering is in many ways more efficient than national filtering. First of all, it attracts less media attention and is easier to hide. Even if the filtering is exposed it’s easy to say the site was inaccessible due to technical reasons. Second, regional blocking affects the target group only.
In Ingushetia and Khabarovsk the prosecutor’s office requested the filter. In Khabarovsk, the provider exposed the court's decision and appealed it. It is likely that the higher court will overrule the lower court’s decision. In Ingushetia, the block on LiveJournal lasted for 17 days; it was removed as soon as several influential online media outlets wrote about it. In Tula it was allegedly the governor of the region, irritated by the website’s criticism, who ordered the block; Tulksiye Prinanki had already mirrored its site at blogger.com.
This news is both discouraging and encouraging. It proves that there's room for internet censorship wherever a political power is aligned with a network. At a national level, Russia prefers internet monitoring to internet filtering; at a local level, Russia's regions may begin to better understand how to manipulate their own networks. But all three attempts were technically crude and quickly detected, and none survived much contact with sunlight. That's something to be thankful for.