Russian authorities said they were interested in developing a new system for monitoring of online content. The document of the tender for the new system not only provides specifics about what the Russian government wants to monitor, but also exposes its attitude towards information technologies.
Internet Monitoring System
Last week, Roskomnadzor, Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision, announced a public tender for developing Internet monitoring system. According to the tender, the budget for such system is 15 million rubles (about $530,000) and the job applications should be submitted by April 15, 2011. The system needs to be developed by August 15, 2011 and the testing period should end on December 15, 2011.
Michail Vorobiev, an assistant to the head of Roskomnadzor, told [ru] Russian information agency RIA Novosti that the system's purpose was to discover content recognized by the Russian law as illegal. Such system will be based on two elements: a storage that would contain illegal materials (some sort of ‘thesaurus of illegal keywords’) and the search system that will scan through the online space and compare the online text with the illegal content in the storage.
The description of the tender is a long and openly published document [ru], so what exactly the system should look for is not a secret. The number and the nature of goals that the search robot should achieve are surprising. It goes ways beyond incitement of national hatred or appeals to violence. In includes not only terrorism, appeals to actions that threaten constitutional order, materials that disclose classified security information, propaganda of drugs and pornography, but also false information about federal and regional officials, as well as content that threatens the freedom and secrecy of choice during elections. Another interesting goal is to discover content with hidden embedded components that seek to influence subconsciousness. If it’s not enough, the program would monitor not only textual, but also visual content (photos and videos).
Publicist from Lenta.ru Valery Panfilov summarized [ru] the list:
“…документации до списка отслеживаемых нарушений, который оказался длиннее, чем список запрещенных язвеннику продуктов”
The major target of the monitoring, at least according to the Russian officials, is not traditional media websites or blogs, but comments at the online media outlets (it is important to note that the monitoring system is intended to be used for the content of the sites officially registered as online mass media). Since 2010, online mass media are required to remove illegal comments only following request from Roskomnadzor.
Within the first year of removal practice, Roskomnadzor had discovered and requested to remove [ru] 45 comments of “extremist content.” People at Roskomnadzor, however, admit [ru] that monitoring comments is a challenge for them because it requires additional human resources. The new system should provide solution for this. According to the tender, the system should be handled by only two operators.
Russia's Story of Content Surveillance and Removal
The Russian Internet has a long history of efforts to develop a “successful” and sustainable system for content monitoring and surveillance. First, and probably most famous, were SORM and SORM-2 systems that every Internet provider had to install. Another attempt to monitor illegal content was engagement of Internet users. About one month ago, a number of IT-hosting providers strongly affiliated with the Ministry of Communication launched a new organization “A League for Secure Internet.” According to the founders, the organization should create online brigades of Internet users that will seek and report unlawful content.
At the same time, private companies also develop systems for monitoring of online content for commercial purposes. For instance Medialogia develops [ru] solutions for the monitoring of traditional and social media. The “News Terminal Glass” has built iPhone/iPad applications that categorize information as “positive” or “negative” around particular person or issue. According to advertisement brochures of the monitoring system, among its clients you can find the Presidential Administration of Russia and the Russian Government Administration (more about media monitoring the Presidential Administration of Russia is here [ru]).
The Ambiguity of Content Removal
Obviously, after the publication of this tender, many Internet users complained about the new “Big Brother” and the government's intentions to censor the Internet. The situation, however, is more complicated and ambivalent. The major problem is not the fact the Russian government tries to develop a system for online monitoring, but how it defines and interpretes the purpose of this system. Moreover, the tender reflects a general attitude of the Russian government towards information technologies. On one hand, the state’s effort to monitor online content can be approached as legitimate.
First, if the government wants to know what its citizens say publicly, it should be welcomed. What can be better than the authorities sensitive to public opinion. What if a blogger in Vladivostok shares her problems and the president of the country wants to have tools that bring to his attention the most concerning reports? One of the ways to do it in the reality of information overload is a system that can aggregate and evaluate social media.
Second, it doesn't seem to be a problem with the state’s will to discover illegal content. For instance, the Russian Internet continues to experience significant content control problems, including a paradoxical situation when Vkontakte.ru, one of the most popular websites among school students, is also one of the major hosts of online pornography and is internationally recognized as a major copyright infringer.
Last week, a group of managers of major IT companies wrote a public address [ru] that demanded more efforts for content filtering from Vkontake administration. Michael Gurevitch, a general director of Mediamir company, pointed out that Facebook has more users than Vkontakte, but you wouldn’t see there any pornography, including child pornography, and founder of Groupon Russia Elena Maslova argued that it’s not fair that Vkontakte attracts users through illegal content. The spokesperson of Vkontakte Vladislav Tzyplukhin claimed that the situation changed radically one year ago due to the measures that reduced visibility of pornography and increased measures of moderation. Tzyplukhin's arguement, however, can hardly survive the reality check.
But What Is Illegal Content?
On the other hand, despite the general legitimacy of the effort to develop an Internet monitoring system, the tender emphasized several issues in Russian approach toward the problem of content control and using information technologies by the government in general.
The first and probably the most visible and significant problem is the way that Russian authorities define illegal content and extremism. The issue starts with the law and continues with its interpretation and enforcement. Another indication of this problem is the fact that the list of content that the system should identify is very long and includes false information about officials. Putting terrorism, threats to constitutional order, xenophobia, child pornography and accusations against government officials within the same framework not only raises many concerns, but also makes the system less effective.
There are also few institutional issues. For instance, Roskomnadzor, a Russian analogue of American FCC, is responsible for monitoring of media content. The state should demand self-responsibility from administration of major websites and media, but not actively engage in monitoring – something that is not only problematic, but also not viable.
Another institutional problem is the government's method of viewing horizontal reality through hierarchical approach. For instance, the effort to create a crowdsourced system for content monitoring through founding new hierarchical traditional organization, “League for Secure Internet,” so far has proven uneficient. Effective crowdsourcing solutions have to come from the bottom (e.g. initiative gdecasino.ru for monitoring illegal gambling sites [en]), but not being imposed through top-down hierarchy. Moreover, this type of initiatives should develop opportunities for monitoring (e.g. crowdsourcing websites) but not create new offline organizations that aim to manage online crowds. The efforts to organize brigades of monitors and fight Internet bots so far only created even more bots that attack users on behalf of the League.
Not Censorship But Another Corruption Case?
There is also an obvious explanation that is being suggested by many bloggers, that claim that the League as well as the new tender are another ways to steal money from the budget. According to these opinions, the tender should be investigated by anti-corruption websites. For instance, Maksim Salomatin from Park.ru says [ru] that the fact that participants of the tender should finish the work on the system in impossible 3 months means that, probably, Roskomnadzor has in mind some particular organization that has already worked on this program.
Besides, a lack of understanding of technology by governmental officials makes them to believe that those tools can solve significant problems and make their life easier. The tender demonstrates that officials approach technology as some sort of magic. Blogger Klugovich wrote [ru] that only computer illiterates or sci-fi fans would believe that technology would be able to distinguish between criticism and deliberate defamation against officials, not to speak about audio and video materials.
According to the opinion [ru] of Lev Matveev, an executive director of SearchInform, development of such system is possible on time, however it will not be effective due to a high number of false alerts. And it is doubtful that this type of system can reduce the number of people required for content monitoring. But one may also suggest that it will only increase it.
“Deus Ex iPad” Approach
The case described is an example of a “deus ex machina” approach, a belief that technology will solve Russia's governance problems. The technology will create a new “vertical of governance,” and finally reduce the country's governance task to the management of an iPad application. On the other hand, the crowdsourcing will engage people in solving the problems by themselves without the government.
I wonder when Russia will come to the idea from Asimov's “Franchise” where a super computer randomly chooses the president of the country. Why the state would need elections if a hi-tech firm can develop such system (in the case of Russia, we can even suspect who will be chosen by the computer).
One of the bloggers suggested [ru] even more futuristic scenario as a reaction to the new tender:
да чё лет через 20 и народ можно заменить роботами
The role of technology is brilliantly summed up [ru] by the Infowatch blog:
Как понимают все умные люди, социальную проблему невозможно решить техническими средствами. Подобное лечится подобным. А технические препоны легко и непринуждённо обходятся технически же.
This is something that Roskomnadzor and Russian government should remember.