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A New Filtering System Could Slow Down RuNet. And Then There's the Censorship

New filtering system for the RuNet could slow down Internet traffic. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

New filtering system for the RuNet could slow down Internet traffic. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Russian lawmakers want Internet service providers to install automated content filtering systems on their networks, and say the necessary legal amendments to push this forward may be introduced by the end of 2014. Telecom companies fear such filtering would be costly, lead to slower Internet speeds, and introduce new opportunities for surveillance and censorship in the RuNet.

RuNet Echo has reported on previous efforts to lobby for a real-time filtering system that would block websites containing “harmful content” in the interest of protecting minors. It now appears that the system might become a reality, as numerous state officials, including President Putin's aide Igor Schegolev, have thrown their weight behind the filtering initiative. While users over 18 could apply to have filters removed, it's unclear how this would work.

Initially proposed by the Safe Internet League, a Kremlin-loyal NGO partnering with major Russian ISPs, these measures would bring an additional layer of censorship to Russia's already-pervasive website blacklist system, under which ISPs are required to block all websites containing “extremist materials.” The system would effectively allow for semantic analysis of all Internet traffic passing through Russian ISPs.

The Safe Internet League’s original goal was to make the RuNet “safe for children.” According to Russian media reports, the draft of the legal amendments stipulates the filtering should be installed for all websites by default, and users would then have to prove they are over 18 in order to view content that would be considered “adult.” Users over 18 wanting to access content that would be filtered out as “adult” would have to submit a separate application, although the new provisions do not specify what the application looks like or where it should be sent. In theory, this means RuNet users can eventually access filtered content, but can’t opt out of the filtering altogether.

Experts polled by Gazeta.ru believe the real-time filtering mechanism would dramatically increase operations costs for ISPs, who would have to install the tools at their own expense. The system could also severely reduce Internet speeds.

Gazeta.ru's source indicated that this approach would require comprehensive pre-moderation of all Internet traffic passing through the ISP's network.

Те, кто не смогут делать это на своих ресурсах, обязаны будут покупать уже очищенный контент у более крупных операторов. Тем самым будет создан механизм определения доверенных и не доверенных провайдеров.

Those who won't be able to afford it [the installation] on their resources, will have to buy “prefiltered” content from larger ISPs. This will help create a mechanism for determining trustworthy and non-trustworthy providers.

It seems the Kremlin has deliberately tried to avoid public discussion of the legal amendments enabling the filtering, as the wave of dissatisfaction from ISPs, telecom operators, and online businesses has been unanimous.

The Russian Association of Electronic Communications (RAEC) has also spoken out against the filtering legislation. RAEC, an industry association that includes the RuNet's largest companies, such as VKontakte, Rambler, Google, Microsoft, Mail.Ru Group, and others, agreed the software and hardware needed to make the new filtering system work would cost ISPs millions of roubles. Given that Internet users over 18 could apply to bypass the filters (and RAEC believes over three quarters of them eventually will), the filtering mechanism would become a huge waste of money for the Russian telecom operators.

RAEC experts also said real-time filtering would make the quality of Internet connections in Russia significantly worse, placing a particular strain on users who stream music and video online. In addition, RAEC claimed that only public textual content would be open to semantic analysis by the system, as it wasn't able to filter video, music, images or encrypted content. The Russian news agency RBK, though, notes that the draft text of the proposed amendments says the system “should” be able to analyze videos and photos as well.

Because the technology for the filtering mechanism itself still hasn’t been finalized, the media can only speculate as to what its capabilities will be. But the Kremlin's intent is clearly to filter all kinds of media, not just text. At the same time, telecom experts say it is virtually impossible to filter non-text content well, so in the end it will only slow down the traffic, but won't help weed out “adult” or “dangerous” content.

Although the state usually has to hold an open tender to solicit bids for any technical solutions or software creation, rumor has it that the technical backbone for the real-time filtering system is already in the hands of Ashmanov and partners, a well-known RuNet Internet marketing and development company headed by one of Rambler's founders, Igor Ashmanov. When quizzed by Gazeta.ru about his company's role, Ashmanov said he believed there should still be an open competition. He admitted his company had developed a filtering mechanism, but said they had only sold it to “private clients.”

[…] «правительственных заказов» у нас пока нет. Будут – продадим, если условия будут выгодными. […] Наш фильтр, конечно, лучший в России – он семантический и очень быстрый, позволяет точно детектировать и фильтровать динамический контент по запрещенным тематикам, но решает не всегда качествo.

[…] We've not had any “government orders” so far. If they appear, we will sell it, if the conditions are attractive. […] Our filter is, of course, the best in Russia—it is semantic and it's very fast, it allows to precisely detect and filter dynamic content based on forbidden topics, but quality is not always the deciding factor.

If the filtering system is indeed instituted by the end of 2014, and if its reach is widespread enough, the Kremlin might manage to anger not only the activists combatting surveillance and the online businesses struggling to make a profit. If the filters really slow down traffic speeds, Russian social network users venturing online for their daily fix of cat pics and Putin music videos might find themselves joining the ranks of net freedom fighters—even if only to defend their right to watch and listen to whatever they want at a decent speed.

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