Russian Police Lose an Easy Way to Trap ‘Internet Extremists’

Image by Kevin Rothrock

Image by Kevin Rothrock

For years, Russian police have turned to Vkontakte, the country’s most popular social network, for an easy supply of potential criminal suspects. Hunting down thieves and murderers is difficult, dangerous business, and so it should come as no surprise that state investigators have consistently prosecuted “Internet extremists,” instead.

In addition to its enormous user base, Vkontakte appeals to Russian police because the network consistently complies with law-enforcement agencies’ requests for information about the identity and location of individual users — data that is vital to bringing charges against people for sharing supposedly illegal content online.

Learn how Russian police exploit social media to pad solved-crime statistics in RuNet Echo’s translation of a special report by MediaZona

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, by revising one of its default privacy settings, Vkontakte significantly reduced the number of shared photographs publicly visible on individual account pages, according to the news website TJournal. The change applies to “saved” images, which is a feature offered on Vkontakte that allows users to bookmark photographs shared by other users. Until Tuesday, anything someone “saved” was added to an album that anyone could see — exposing many users in ways they never realized.

Vkontakte’s new policy hides these photo albums from everyone except the users who create them. Individuals can still share their “saved” albums publicly, if they revert their privacy settings manually.

If you think this change sounds trivial, you might consult Evgeny Kort, the 20-year-old Muscovite convicted of extremism last November and sentenced to a year in prison. Luckily for Kort, an appellate court later reduced his punishment to a fine of 200,000 rubles (about $3,400), but it’s still a steep penalty, considering that Kort’s crime was that he “saved” a cartoon depicting Russian nationalist Maxim “the Hatcher” Martsinkevich attacking famed and long-deceased poet Alexander Pushkin.

Kort says he never intended to disseminate the image, but it was displayed publicly in his “saved” photo album on Vkontakte, which Russia’s judicial system considered proof that he sought to propagate illegal hate speech.

Vkontakte’s new privacy settings could have repercussions in Belarus, as well, where the network also has millions of users. Earlier this month, a woman in Belarus was convicted of distributing pornography because she “saved” a photograph showing two people having sex. The woman, Diana Selvanova, says she “saved” the image absentmindedly, while using a mobile device, without even realizing that it depicted a man’s penis.

For her criminal deed, Selvanova got a two-year suspended sentence, but that’s not even the worst of it: she also lost her job and local child protective services have warned her family and threatened to take away her six-year-old son.

Had Vkontakte revised the privacy settings on its “saved” photo albums a year ago, it’s unlikely that police would have ever discovered, let alone prosecuted, individuals like Evgeny Kort and Diana Selvanova.

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